Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day -- Chicago Style

by Libby Hellmann

The Chicago Tribune ran a story a couple of weeks ago on “colorful” Chicago characters, most of them elected officials. Included in their “Colorful Servant Hall of Fame” were

Big Bill Thompson, maybe the most corrupt mayor the city has ever known

John D’Arco, a convicted felon, state senator, and self-proclaimed poet

“Bathhouse” John Coughlin, a 1st Ward alderman and another poet .
(come to think of it, what that says about politicians with literary pretensions is probably best left to posterity) who, along his partner/alderman “Hinky Dink” Kenna, were the kings of graft and protection money at the turn of the last century

Betty Lauren-Maltese, Cicero’s town president who eventually went to jail for fraud. Betty, the wife of mob bookie Frank Maltese (for whom she named the town’s police and fire stations), was quoted (among other outrageous things) as saying the US Constitution didn’t apply to the gangs she wanted to kick out of Cicero.

So, on this Memorial Day, I thought it might be fun to remember a few other characters who didn’t make it into the article but have swaggered their way into Chicago history by their cavalier actions, personalities, and sheer chutzpah. Not all of them were elected officials, but all of them are part of the tradition of “bad boys and girls.”

Ed Vrdolyak: Has Fast Eddie finally had his comeuppance? The once powerful
Alderman (known as “Fast Eddie” because of his speed at rushing through legislation) and one-time head of the Chicago City Council was generally a major thorn in the side of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. But he is also known as a mob lawyer, and is known to be the power behind the throne in Cicero (see Betty above). The one time head of the Cook County Democrats made a fast switch into the Republican Party so he could run – unsuccessfully -- against Mayor Daley. Unfortunately, just a few weeks ago, Fast Eddie was indicted for fraud and bribery related to a kickback scheme involving Gold Coast real estate. Shocking.

Jane Byrne: The first female Mayor of Chicago served only one term: from 1979 to 1983.
I like to call her the “Snow Queen” – her election came after a series of bizzards that paralyzed Chicago and made the current mayor, Michael Bilandic, seem incompetent. She was the one who installed Fast Eddie as the head of the Cook County Democrats (he repaid the favor by becoming a Republican), but, in the long run, she wasn’t able to muster the necessary political clout to survive. After Harold Washington won the Democratic primary, she played the spoiler, waging a write-in campaign, which split the white vote (Richie Daley was the other candidate), and made Washington’s election inevitable.

Richard Bailey: He probably couldn’t be elected dog-catcher, but he’s a creepy guy who’s now in jail for his role in the murder of candy heiress Helen Brach. Bailey, a con-artist who specialized in fleecing wealthy older women out of their savings, was connected to the horsey set. Racing, that is. "His favorite prey were women who were wealthy due to having been widowed, women whose thinking was not as straight as it should be because perhaps they were dying, very sick or acutely lonely," said one investigator. He’d con them out of their money by proposing they invest in horses, then skim most of the money for himself. As it happens, I have a personal note about Bailey. My former babysitter, a very attractive young woman, took a job with him and his girlfriend for three weeks and moved into their North side home. She became convinced she was being drugged, and we had to help her get away from him.

OK -- this post is getting a little long, so it’s time to quit. But don’t forget Commander Jon Burge, the former police commander who, for 20 years, tortured suspects to make them confess.

Or George Ryan, the Republican governor who, despite ending the death penalty in Illinois, was convicted of corruption and racketeering last year.

Or – going back in history – .
the famous and enterprising Everleigh sisters, whose Chicago bordello on South Dearborn at the turn of the century was possibly the most luxurious of its time and counted as their patrons politicians, writers, actors, and even royalty.

Clearly, I’ve just skimmed the surface. Who are some of the other Chicago “characters” you remember? And why do Chicago’s scoundrels and criminals seem so much larger than life than other cities? Although that just might be a subject for another blog.


Sara N Paretsky said...

I like Vina Fields, an African-American madam who operated at the same time as the Everleigh sisters. Her "boarders," as she called them, got a higher percentage of their earnings than any other working women in Chicago; it was said of her that "her rules and regulatons...could hardly be more strict than if they were drawn up for the regulation of a Sunday School."
I named a very upscale private school for her in my book blacklist.

The first year I lived here, Mike Royko ran a sort of contest in the old Daily News to see whether the state of New Jersey or the city of Chicago would have more elected officials under indictment at the end of the year. New Jersey won, by one indictment if I recall correctly--so not too bad a showing for Chicago, going up against a whole state.

BTW, is anyone following the drama in the Texas Leg? What a sadness that Molly Ivins didn't live to see it!

Matt said...

Probably my "favorite" Chicago crook was Alfred "Jake" Lingle, the corrupt Tribune crime reporter (legman, actually; he didn't write any of his stories). He was clipped in the Randolph Street station, in 1930-1(?).

It's likely that Al Capone ordered the hit, but Lingle was not short on enemies. He amassed a small fortune acting as a liason between the underworld and the Chicago police.

In my lifetime, I rememeber the Tylenol Killer (still at large) and the Brown's Chicken killers.

But the face I'll never forget is Laurie Dann, the Winnetka school teacher who opened fire in a grade school classroom in the late 1980s, and took a family hostage in their own home before committing suicide. What I remember most was an eyewitness story of Dann riding up and down the elevator of her apartment building, for hours on end, carrying an icepick and staring into nothingness.

Libby Hellmann said...

How could I have forgotten Laurie Dann, Matt? I was living on the NOrth Shore at the time and my son was at day care that afternoon. I didnt know a thing about it until I went to pick him up and the doors were locked. At the time she hadn't been found, and everyone was nervous that a child-killer was running around the North Shore. Very close... and very disturbing... which is probably why I didn't include her.

Matt said...


Before I get to your comment, we can't forget Harry Aleman, who Royko wrote about, and who Rick Kogan and Maurice Possely masterfully drew in their book "Everybody Pays."

I was in eighth grade when the Dann killings happened. I've just never been able to forget her face.

In fact, this Wikipedia entry has the picture the local news had run (though I remember it being in color). Seeing it outside of my memory for the first time since 1988 put a chill down my spine.

Sara, very interesting post on Vina Fields.

I've been workshopping my first novel, which features a Depression-era African-American gangster.

One of my millions of challenges reworking this book is creating a credible context in which black-operated organized crime could survive and thrive in the appalling racial climate of the time. A lot of my research in this area came out of "Bumpy" Johnson and the Harlem nightlife of the 1930s.

I know Fields operated in an earlier era, but it's "nice" to have a Chicago connection. Has anyone written anything substantial on her exploits?

Sara N Paretsky said...

Matt, I don't think anyone has written on Vina Fields. For research on A-A life in Chicago in the Thirties, check out the archive at the Vivian Harsh Collection, Woodson Reg. Library, 95th & Halsted. It's the second biggest archive of A-A life in American behind the Schomburg collection, and the lead archivist, Michael Flug, knows all there is to know and more besides about Black life in Chicago,

Hope that's helpful.


Matt said...


Thanks a lot. I'll be sure to check it out.

It's certainly been a challenge writing that aspect of the novel, particuarly depicting the "casual" racism of those times.

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