Wednesday, June 17, 2015

City of Scoundrels

Gary Krist, City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago, (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 2012), 273 pages.

Students and scholars of American history will remember how 1919 turned into a post war nightmare of bombings, strikes, riots and violence. The year started with the Seattle general strike. Random bombings started in February and continued around the country. There were the summer race riots, the worst one in Chicago, the fall strikes of the Boston police, steel workers and coal miners. The first raids of A. Mitchell Palmer’s red scare took place in November.

In City of Scoundrels, Gary Krist narrates the 1919 life and troubles for Chicago with special emphasis on twelve days from July 21 to August 1, 1919. The opening prologue narrates a burning exploding Goodyear blimp, the Wingfoot Express, that fell into the central court of the Illinois Trust bank in downtown Chicago on July 21. Bank employees were finishing their workday when the flaming mass dropped literally onto their heads, killing twelve and wounding many more.

Part I follows with eight chapters of background history and events of Chicago from January 1, 1919 until the July 21, 1919 crash of the blimp, which Krist assures readers was a miner mishap compared to what was coming. Chicago politics dominate these early chapters with a detailed account of Mayor Big Bill Thompson’s 1919 campaign for a second term and his rivalry with Illinois Governor Frank Lowden.

Krist mentions events and careers of a number of famous or notorious people with Chicago connections like attorney Clarence Darrow, journalist Ring Lardner, poet and journalist Carl Sandberg, black activist Ida Wells-Barnett, and the new Chicago White Sox manager, “Kid” Gleason.

Discussion includes the newspaper rivalries of the Chicago Tribune and its editor Robert McCormack with the Chicago Daily News and its editor Victor Lawson. Bombings in black neighborhoods and the death of Ernestine Ellis foreshadow the race riots to come. Krist had access to several diaries, which helped him give readers a feel for the Chicago social life of the era that includes discussion of the 1919 new years’ eve celebration and the onset of prohibition.

Krist titles part II, Crisis. It narrates four crisis sprinkled through ten chapters, one chapter for each day starting with Tuesday, July 22 and so on until August 1. Part II picks up the aftermath of the blimp crash, the abduction and murder of a young girl named Janet Wilkinson, a citywide transit strike, and south side race riot.

The Blimp crash brought hearings with charges and counter charges that open part II. The best quote for me came from a Chicago Evening Post editorial. The crash “is due, as so many other disasters are due, to the American habit of taking no preventive action till the disaster as occurred.” Still true I would say.

The blimp crash and its aftermath are one thread through recurring narrative of the four crisis. Krist covers the Janet Wilkinson case in great detail: the disappearance, suspects, arrests, interrogation, a confession, the trial, and execution by hanging, but over half of the 100 plus pages of part II narrate the riots and transit strike which occur on the same July days.

Readers confront the extraordinary violence and bitterness of the riots and the determination of the black community to fight back. Many in the black community served in the armed forces and fought in France during World War I. Narrative highlights the role of white youth gangs in the violence. Like the St. Louis riots before it arson wiped out whole neighborhoods and spread to downtown areas.

Readers will have to evaluate the political and personal rivalry of Mayor Thompson and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, who acted as competitors rather than allies in spite of the riot. Narrative describes how Mayor Thompson succeeded in keeping Governor Lowden from calling out the National Guard until the Mayor decided it was time on the fourth day, after most of the 23 blacks and 15 whites killed in the riots, were already dead.

Four chapters and an epilogue cover the post riot period from August 1, 1919 through the end of 1920. Much of it recounts the continuing rivalry of the Mayor and the Governor. The Mayor was determined to sabotage the governor’s plan to end the transit strike. The 1920 Republican National Convention was in Chicago and Mayor Thompson had control of key Illinois delegates he used against one of the presidential front runners: Illinois
Governor Frank Lowden. The epilogue follows the major characters in the narrative with a “where they are now” wrap up.

It should be no surprise journalist Krist writes smooth journalistic narrative. The book makes easy reading with sources well documented and a useful and varied bibliography. There are also some fun black and white pictures of the people we meet in the book.

The title of the book, City of Scoundrels, fits for a book length account of grimy Chicago politics and berserk violence, but the sub title, the 12 days of disaster that gave birth to modern Chicago, doesn’t fit as well for me. It could be he means modern Chicago still lives by the me-first principles of “Big Bill" Thompson. I took the mention of the 17 year old Richard J. Daley as a member of one of the white street gangs to be a hint in that direction, but Krist doesn’t follow up too well with what he means by modern Chicago. After you finish this book you might feel better if you just think about Chicago as the windy city!

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