What A Difference A Mayor Makes

image credit- Gapers Block, March 2010

— written by Garrett Chado
When Nelson Algren’s book Chicago: City on the Make was first published in 1951 it received harsh criticism from the Chicago Daily News, who called it a ‘case for ra(n)t control.’ Perhaps they were justified in their outcries; Algren casts a light into the darkest streets and corners of Chicago and her history, in a way that only a malevolent lover can. Yet here we are today – the Chicago Daily News has been silent for 34 years and Algren’s work continues to live on with the publication of the 50th and 60th anniversary editions of Chicago: City on the Make.

            I leave it to Algren to describe the history of the “Pure-of-heart” and the “Broker’s Breed;” the “Do-As-I-Sayers and the Live-And-Let-Livers;” the “nobodies nobody knew.” Instead, I want to focus on one of Chicago’s most infamous politicians: William ‘Big Bill’ Thompson.

In Algren’s words: “The Do-gooders themselves put Thompson back at the wheel, realizing that henceforward nobody but an outlaw could maintain a semblance of law and order on the common highway. Big Bill greeted his fellow citizens correctly then with a cheery, ‘Fellow Hoodlums!’ / The best any mayor can do with the city since is just to keep it in repair.”

Big Bill Thompson was a ruthless and flamboyant politician. In the mayoral election of 1915 Big Bill ran as a republican candidate against democratic candidate Robert Sweitzer. Both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News opposed Thompson, instead supporting Sweitzer. In response, Thompson attacked what he called the ‘trust press.’ He made it very public that Victor Lawson, publisher of the Chicago Daily News, was charged a mere $17.32 in property taxes on a property worth over $1,000,000. At the time it was typical for a $3,000 home to be taxed upwards of $100 in property tax for one year.

Thompson’s party then began accusing Sweitzer of proclaiming that since Sweitzer was Catholic, and half of Chicago was Catholic, Sweitzer should have an easy victory over Thompson. In response, many of Chicago’s prominent Protestants began to openly support Thompson.

In 1915 the Great War was being fought in Europe as Chicago’s foreign population worried about family members they left behind. Thompson took the opportunity to distribute handbills with pictures of German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II and Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, urging the people to “vote for Sweitzer and the Fatherland.” Thompson distributed these to the Polish and Czechoslovakian neighborhoods, thus winning their vote.

Between 1915 and 1921, the Thompson administration ran the city laisser-faire. This allowed gangsters and mobsters, such as Al Capone, to run the streets. By 1921 this policy backfired on Thompson, when the state attorney, Robert C. Crowe, spoke out against the administration, stating that: “I broke with Thompson because he was interfering with my sworn duty to expose and prosecute hellholes of prostitution and commercialized vice.” Thompson, knowing he could not win the election of 1923, withdrew. But he did not slip out of the public’s eye. Rather, in accord with his typical flamboyant approach to politics, he bought a boat. He called it the Big Bill, and went on a scientific mission to Borneo to find tree-climbing fish. He went down the Chicago drainage canal, into the Mississippi river, and out into the Gulf of Mexico, allowing the new democratic mayor, William Dever, to destroy himself.

Dever was a prohibitionist and attempted to enforce prohibition with an iron fist. The gangsters, who had been allowed to flourish under Thompson fought back and the streets of Chicago ran red with blood. Thompson returned for the election of 1927. He hosted a debate between himself and two live rats. The rats represented his political opponents. As Algren tells us, “the Do-gooders themselves put Thompson back at the wheel,” knowing that no one else could keep the gangsters from ripping the city apart. Al Capone himself is said to have supported Thompson.

Between 1927 and 1931 the people of Chicago grew sick of Thompson’s politics. In 1928 Al Capone’s men threw grenades at polling places around Chicago during the primary elections, giving rise to the name “Pineapple Primaries.” On February 14th 1929, Al Capone’s men committed the infamous St. Valentines Day Massacre. In 1931 Anton Cermak defeated Thompson, and one of the nation’s most corrupt mayors was finally out of office.


Friends of Blackstone Library presents Bill Savage Wednesday, May 23, 2012 in “Revisiting Chicago: City on the Make”, 6-7:00pm. Blackstone Library is located at 4904 S. Lake Park Ave. It is a branch of the Chicago Public Library.


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