How Chicago moved from city to metropolis.
Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By JOHN WILWOL
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:
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:
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.