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.”
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.
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.