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12 days of disaster that changed Chicago forever

Author Gary Krist looks back at 1919 and the blimp crash, murder, and race riot that made the Chicago the metropolis we know today.

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There's an alternate way of thinking about machine politics, seeing it as a kind of social service provider.

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This was before we had unemployment insurance, job offices, and housing offices. There was a real need for people who were working class or lower middle class.

When Uncle Louis lost his job or Aunt May was being evicted from her apartment, there was no place to go except for your local precinct captain.

They'd say "we're on it." All they'd ask for was every vote by you and your family in the immediate future.

It was the upper middle class and upper class that were really making all the noise about corruption. The lower classes, in contrast, viewed the good government types as in it for themselves.

If you're an average Chicagoan and you're paying high streetcar fares and high gas costs, the good government types seem to be on the sides of the utility barons and transportation barons. There was a suspicion of what the good government types really wanted and their relation to the interests of wealth and property.

Q: In the middle of all this was William "Big Bill" Thompson, the colorful and corrupt mayor of Chicago. How is he remembered?

He's a favorite punching bag, really. I think his enemies were the ones who wrote the history books. It was the academics at the University of Chicago and newspaper publishers who hated him and more or less went on to write the history.

He was not a great guy. He was not a misunderstood champion of the lower class and middle class. But he did have some redeeming features.

He was a demagogue and did say some outrageous things, but a lot of the outrageous things he said were pretty sly.

He was a noted pacifist during World War I and he got a lot of flack for that, but he claimed that Chicago was the sixth largest German city in the world and that was accurate.

He said that if King George came to Chicago, he'd punch him in the snoot. He knew that railing against the king of England was going to play with his Irish constituents and the Germans.

Q: You write that Chicago was especially prone to corruption. Why was that?

The Illinois Constitution was written before they realized they’d have a city the size of Chicago in the state. The constitution had severe limits on the ability of any city to raise monies through taxes and bonds.

When Chicago grew explosively, they had to come up with ways of getting more money to do more things. They'd set up what were essentially alternative governments. Even drainage projects were put under the aegis of a different government with their own bonding and taxation powers.

When you have all these independent governments, you have a lot of offices to fill. There are jobs that don't require that much work but pay well. They were used as a kind of political currency: You give me a position on the board of the South Parks Commission and I'll throw my support to you in your race for state's attorney.

Q: Is the corruption of the city behind your title, "City of Scoundrels"?

A: I wanted to create this general sense that there were a lot of people in the city who behaved very badly in this period. It doesn't only refer to the rioters, the mayor, and the girl's murderer. There was enough blame to go around.


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