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.

'You had a city going from a state of high optimism about the future to the brink of civil collapse and martial law,' Krist says of Chicago in 1919.

Mention the city of Chicago and the year 1919, and someone might bring up the Black Sox scandal that disgraced major league baseball. But the Second City had much bigger problems on its mind earlier that year.

A blimp crashed downtown in a fantastic accident. A young girl was murdered by a person (or persons) unknown. A race riot broke out and dozens were killed.

And on top of all that, a transit strike paralyzed the city, all during the heat of a Midwest summer. In his new book, historian Gary Krist takes a closer look at one of the most epic series of crises to ever hit an American city. "City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago" is a crackling history, full of expert storytelling from the very first page. In an interview, Krist talks about the dashing of Chicago's grand post-war optimism, the
corruption that has long bedeviled the city's reputation, and the legacy of inept people making bad decisions.

Q: What happened in Chicago in 1919?

A: You had a city going from a state of high optimism about the future to the brink of civil collapse and martial law.

The war was over, the influenza epidemic was tapering off, the crime rate was low, and people had this plan for Chicago in view.

[Architect and urban planner] Daniel Burnham had this visionary plan that was going to turn Chicago into the Paris of the prairies, and people were very optimistic about this.

Then the postwar pressures just set in. And what started out looking hopeful disintegrated into this 12-day period when the city descended into chaos.

It started with a blimp crash, the first major aviation disaster in American history. And even before people had time to digest that, a child disappears from the North Side of Chicago, which created this hysteria about whether our children are safe from our neighbors.

The real mayhem began when a pretty minor incident at a South Side beach spiraled into one of the worst race riots in American history. As if that weren't enough, a transit strike was called.

Q: How were the ordinary people of Chicago affected by all this?

At a certain point, people wondered if Chicago would get through this.

I include excerpts from the diary a young girl of 17. She wonders if the city will ever settle down: What is going on in this city?

People thought the whole fabric of society seemed to be tearing apart: I can't get to work, I can't even go out on the streets. I'm looking at my neighbor a little askance. And you can't even walk into a bank without fearing that a blimp will crash into the roof.

There really was a sense of crisis and emergency felt by just about everybody.

Q: The government is supposed to help in situations like this, but it was entirely corrupt thanks to machine politics. Then again, ordinary folks often appreciated the machine, right?

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

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.

Q: Amid all this chaos, was there anyone on the side of the angels?

A: There were a few unambiguous angels. One is Ida Wells-Barnett. [The African-American heroine was a journalist, activist, suffragist and more.]

The day before the riots, she had an article published in one of the papers saying that we're on the brink of disaster, Chicago has to wake up.

She knew there would be an extensive investigation afterwards. So she would have victims over to her house and take testimony throughout the entire riot. And she was going into neighborhoods where people were killing each other to take their testimony.

She is an unambiguous white knight.

[Author and poet] Carl Sandburg was doing some good reporting in the black belt shortly before the riot. I wouldn't necessarily vouch for his personal beliefs on race, but the stuff he was writing was good for the black population of Chicago, and certainly his outrage at the riots was something we can identify with today.

Q: What did the events of 1919 mean for Chicago as it faced the next few years?

A: A lot of black leaders at the time thought there was a silver lining to it, that the riots galvanized African Americans to fight back against discrimination, especially given the stellar performance of black soldiers during World War I. It raised awareness that there were injustices stewing under the surface.

The summer had a mixed legacy for Chicago at large because the resolution of both the transit strike and race riot were really mismanaged by the governor and the state's attorney. They performed horribly in the wake of the disaster.

But Mayor Thompson was able to come back stronger than ever by 1920 and attain a level of power that was unprecedented in Illinois politics. It assured that Thompson would dominate politics for much of the 1920s.

I do think he has some legitimacy as a builder. Many of the things that make Chicago an architectural wonder are a legacy of Thompson.

But he was also very accommodating to people like Al Capone. You had the cliché Chicago of the 1920s, which was all jazz, guns, and bootleg liquor.

Q: What about the long-term legacy of those days in 1919?

A: It changed race relations in the city for many years to come. There was understandably a lot of bitterness afterward, and it really hardened the color line in Chicago for decades.

The legacy is with us today in Chicago, which is still one of the most segregated cities in the country.

For more about Chicago in the 1920s, check my 2010 interview with Douglas Perry, author of "The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired 'Chicago." Another book, 2008's "For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago," by Simon Baatz, provides a fine look at crime and punishment in the Second City.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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