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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Krist nimbly reveals the inner workings of the Chicago machine of the early 20th century, and political aficionados will delight in the lively accounts of backroom deals and horse trades. He draws an illuminating portrait of the Republican National Convention in June. Combating Edna Ferber’s “apocryphal” account of the “smoke-filled room” that ushered in  Warren G. Harding, Krist explains that the selection of Harding “may have had more to do with luck and group psychology than with any sinister conspiracy.” Krist also provides an engaging and concise description of the Illinois constitution, the root cause of Chicago’s corruption:

For technical reasons having to do with the state’s antiquated constitution, major cities in Illinois had to be run by a number of independent “governments,” each responsible for a different part of the city’s operations. Chicago alone had twenty-seven of these entities—including several park districts, the Chicago Board of Education, the library board, the courts, and so forth—each acting independently to raise and spend money to accomplish its various mandates. What this created (aside from administrative chaos) was a plethora of boards, commissions, and bureaus, each of which had to be filled by appointment or election. With so many choice, well-paid positions to dispense, Illinois officials could—and did—use them as a kind of political currency, trading a commissionership here for a bit of election support there, promising a veto of a bill today for control of a parks board tomorrow. This was politics as usual in the Land of Lincoln in 1916, and—albeit to a lesser extent .  .  . —it’s the way the game is still played today.

City of Scoundrels often reads like a novel, due in large part to Krist’s choice to flesh out individual citizens. Some of these are familiar—Ida Wells-Barnett and Carl Sandburg—but others are not, such as Sterling Morton, scion of the Morton Salt family who was denied the opportunity to serve in World War I on medical grounds. (Morton instead joined a militia unit that was eventually deployed to control the race riots.) And Emily Frankenstein, a young woman from whose diary Krist quotes liberally, provides us with sober, intimate accounts of the chaos. Krist’s greatest strength, however, is his ability to reconstruct a scene. Here he is describing a gunfight that erupted one evening in the midst of the race riots near Wabash and State streets:

The standoff grew increasingly antagonistic until, shortly after eight, a brick flew from somewhere in the crowd and hit a policeman. The badly outnumbered officers closed ranks and suddenly began shooting back with their revolvers. Chaos resulted as panicky rioters scrambled to get out of the intersection. The gunfire went on for almost ten minutes. Two men were shot and killed as they tried to escape into the entrance of the Angelus. More shots killed one man and wounded several others who tried to take shelter behind a trestle of the L tracks. Then gunfire erupted down the block at State Street. Rioters began shooting at a mounted policeman, who returned fire. Fleeing crowds left behind more wounded and a fourth man dead. 

Two days after the Wingfoot disaster, with the police on a wild hunt for pedophiles, and a transit strike in the making, Mayor Thompson boarded a train bound for Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he would be the guest of honor at the annual Frontier Days Roundup. At the mayor’s request, city comptroller George Harding and police chief John Garrity went as well, along with “more than one hundred of his closest friends and supporters.”

In a book full of astounding moments, that’s certainly one of its most memorable, and Krist reminds us throughout just how ripe for the picking Chicago politics were for the satirists of the era. So the last word is given to the greatest of them all, H. L. Mencken: “Democracy,” he wrote, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

John Wilwol is a writer in Washington.