Monday, July 21, 2014

City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist

If you want evidence that things haven’t changed all that much in the great state of Illinois, read City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist. It’s a work of nonfiction covering July 21 to August 1, 1919 in Chicago.

A lot happened during those 12 days, more than I ever learned in school. The book opens with a prologue covering the crash of a blimp named the Wingfoot Express. The airship flew over the city several times on July 21. It took flight for the last time at 4:50 pm with five passengers. As it crossed State Street and the city’s central district, it caught fire; baseball fans at Comiskey Park south of downtown watched the flames erupt.  As the passengers plummeted from the burning airship, it crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank.

The author spends a lot of time covering Chicago’s mayor, the colorful William Hale Thompson. The last Republican mayor of Chicago, he was known as Big Bill and is considered one of the most unethical mayors of all time. His relationship with Governor Frank Lowden was contentious and seems to have contributed to some of the city’s biggest problems during the summer of 1919. Still, Krist credits Thompson’s corrupt and wasteful administration with helping turn 21st-century Chicago into “perhaps the most architecturally distinguished and physically impressive city in the Americas.”

The problems that summer included racial unrest and bombings, race riots, a transit strike, and the frightening disappearance of a six-year-old girl. Krist’s quotations from newspapers of the day make it clear that claims that the press used to be unbiased are wishful thinking.

One thing that I did not expect to find in City of Scoundrels was multiple references to Galesburg’s own Carl Sandburg. Hired by Chicago Daily News editor Henry Justin Smith to be a labor reporter, he comes across as one of the good guys, fighting for the underdog and spotlighting the rights of the black soldiers recently returned from fighting for the U.S. in the Great War. Krist quotes from Sandburg’s poem “Hoodlums,” written in Chicago on July 29, 1919, and calls it “a powerful indictment of the senseless anger he was seeing all around him.”

City of Scoundrels is meticulously footnoted, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a fascinating look at Chicago – and the United States – of 100 years ago. It is shelved at the Galesburg Public Library at NF 977.311 KRI.

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