The Magazine

Toddlin’ Town

How Chicago moved from city to metropolis.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By JOHN WILWOL
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The nature of fact in nonfiction has been a hot topic of late in literary circles. Late February, for example, saw the arrival of The Lifespan of a Fact, a slim volume that claimed to chronicle a seven-year argument between author John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal over just how much D’Agata could alter the facts in his story about the 2002 suicide of a Las Vegas teen (see “The True Facts” by Zack Munson, The Weekly Standard, April 30, 2012). A few weeks later, monologist Mike Daisey confessed that allegations he made against Apple in his wildly popular one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, were not based on reportage gathered at factories in China (as he claimed) but were invented wholesale by him out of a desire to “make people care.” 

Photo of a bird flying through Chicago

Lydia Whitcomb

How refreshing, then, to be greeted by the author’s note in Gary Krist’s thoroughly researched, vividly written new book in which he proclaims, “City of Scoundrels is a work of nonfiction, adhering strictly to the historical record and incorporating no invented dialogue or other undocumented re-creations. Unless otherwise attributed, anything between quotation marks is either actual dialogue (as reported by a witness or in a newspaper) or else a citation from a diary, memoir, book, letter, telegram, court transcript, or other document, as cited in the notes.”

Krist goes on in that vein for a while, and a quick flip to the back reveals just how delightfully extensive those notes are: Over 40 pages worth, in addition to a full bibliography and index. City of Scoundrels reminds us how rich and enthralling reality can be in the hands of a great storyteller. Krist employs an easy, enthusiastic hand to unpack all that research into a raucous, briskly paced, thoroughly American tale that provides moments of great comedy and tragedy, along with a steady diet of spectacular calamity. 

The story opens in Chicago on July 21, 1919, with the “first major aviation disaster in the nation’s history,” the crash of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s Wingfoot Express. Shortly after takeoff around five in the afternoon, as thousands left their offices for the day, an engine on the Wingfoot, one of Goodyear’s “already fabled blimps,” caught fire. As flames licked the “giant silver lozenge” above, people “all around Chicago’s central district watched in awed disbelief as the silver blimp in the sky crumpled and began to fall.” More than a dozen were killed in the disaster, Krist tells us, and dozens more were injured. But that was just the beginning. 

Over the next two weeks, the Windy City would endure a series of crippling blows that threatened to ruin it, including a transit strike that brought life to a grinding halt, an explosive race riot that tore the South Side to pieces, and a chilling child disappearance that left Chicagoans so on edge that the police were ordered to “arrest and institutionalize all suspected ‘morons’ (1919 parlance for ‘mentally deficient deviants’).”

The man at the center of this civic maelstrom was Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, Chicago’s “blustering, flamboyant, unscrupulous, but always entertaining political phenomenon.” Big Bill, who had wanted to be a cowboy as a child, stood over six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. “These Chicagoans recognized Big Bill as one of their own,” Krist writes. “He spoke their language—‘slangy, vulgar, and alive’—and seemed to understand their concerns better than an institute full of good-government reformers.”

Although he won his first mayoral election in 1915 by the largest margin in Chicago history, it wasn’t long before Thompson created enemies among what he called the “lying, crooked, thieving, rotten newspaper editors,” particularly the Chicago Daily News’s Victor F. Lawson and Col. Robert R. McCormick of the Tribune. He also despised Gov. Frank Lowden, who eliminated many of the “no-show jobs” with which Thompson and other Illinois politicians repaid their supporters: “In machine politics, after all, ingratitude and disloyalty were the greatest sins a man could commit,” Krist writes. “Lowden was guilty of both.” Despite all this enmity, Big Bill Thompson managed to wobble into a second mayoral term in the spring of 1919, and it would fall to him to see Chicago through the greatest moment of upheaval it had ever known.