Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chicago Disasters: Background--The Rise of "Big Bill" Thompson

Note: This post is an unfinished and unpolished draft of the eventual post to come.

In early 1919, Chicago was a proud and determined city. For a century the leaders and citizens of the city had striven as one to make Chicago the major city of the U.S.A. They planned to surpass New York City for that position.

By the new year of 1920, the Spanish Influenza epidemic was finally over, World War I ended, and things were looking up (not just for Chicago, but for the nation).

In Chicago, during William "Big Bill" Thompson's first term as mayor, plans had already been made and many obstacles overcome to redesign the city as a modern and impressive place for both citizens and visitors. This was seen as another powerful way to compete with New York for the position of most important city in the nation. But to understand the coming turmoil in Chicago, it is important to know the background of the politics and and conditions of the city before the "twelve days".

"Big Bill" Thompson" was first mayor of Chicago from 1915 to 1923 and again from 1927 to 1931 when after four years away from politics he was elected for his second term. He was often like a chameleon--changing his colors, sometimes to benefit the people of Chicago and at other times to serve the corrupt mobsters who controlled him. During his first term in office he showed his best side when the Eastland sank at its mooring in Chicago in 1915. At that time he returned from a trip by express train to coordinate the recovery efforts for that disaster. He had already led the way for the redesign of Chicago in his first term although there was a great deal of corruption involved in that redesign process.

One of Big Bill's most supportive voting blocs was comprised of blacks who favored his party and saw improvements he made to black neighborhoods during his first term. The "Great Migration" of blacks from the south to the north had swelled the population of blacks in several cities including Chicago, and when white soldiers returning from World War I found jobs and housing scarce because of the large influx of blacks (who were also finding housing and jobs scarce), more and more resentment of the blacks grew, with mobs threatening black residents to try to force them to leave the city. During Big Bill's second campaign for office another disaster occurred when a bomb exploded in the downstairs hallway of a South Side rooming house. One child was killed in the explosion All of the residents of the rooming house were black. Other bombings which luckily were not fatal had occurred in black residences prior to the one at the rooming house. Blacks began to resent Big Bill as his police force stood by idly while attacks were made on blacks throughout the South Side of the city but he would win back their support before his re-election. The South Side explosion would be but one of the sparks that would lead to the horrendous twelve days that would nearly destroy the city.

During his first campaign there was resentment of Big Bill for his lack of support for troops in the trenches of World War I. Claiming that Chicago was a city of many German immigrants, he was highly in favor of isolationism during the war, which was an acceptable stance at first when President Woodrow Wilson was also in favor of keeping us out of the war, but became an untenable position once the United States became involved in the war sending young American men to the battlegrounds of Europe to support the fight against the Germans. But Thompson won back the important support of the blacks, and also had the support of the Irish and the German populations of the city when he ran for election.

The month before Thompson's re-election, had been rough for Chicago:

A crime wave was on the increase which could probably be attributed more to the corrupt bosses of the city than to the blacks (as was the general belief).

Labor unrest had reached such an fevered intensity that a fatal gun fight took place at one meeting. The cost of living had risen 75 percent since 1914, and almost all union groups in the city were threatening to go on strike.

Fears of Bolsheviks were also growing, based on the truth that the group was spying on prominent citizens of the city including Big Bill. Bolsheviks were also proven to be responsible for planting many bombs across the country.

In spite of, or perhaps because of the wild turmoil before election day, Big Bill Thompson was elected for his second term. At least one newspaper printed that the votes Big Bill needed to gain the plurality were cast by black voters who once again supported him wholeheartedly.

Once again, Big Bill promised many reforms and improvements for the city, in spite of its rising debt. As a man connected to the corrupt Chicago machine he was able to convince the governor of Illinois to provide some relief to Chicago to help control the debt.

In the following weeks, Jewish residents of the city jammed the streets, not in protest of Big Bill's election, but in fear of possible ethnic attacks. Many Jews across the country shared this fear and staged similar demonstrations to what took place in Chicago.

The coming of Prohibition was the next big event in Chicago. Huge groups of citizens crowded the bars for their last drinks, and when the doors were officially closed at midnight it resulted in jailings, riots and several deaths. Over time, of course, speakeasies opened, providing a way for citizens to have their drinks if the were willing to break the law.

By this time, hostility between whites and blacks was greatly increasing. In other troubling actions, "more than 250,000 Chicago workers were either on strike, threatening to strike, or locked out" from their jobs. Transit workers threatened to go on strike on July 19th, but Big Bill reached an agreement with them to wait a few days before doing so. Being so busy dealing with the transit workers prevented him from joining the passengers on the Wingfoot Express, but also left him without time to properly address that disaster.

My primary source for this article was the book, City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. It is an excellent book that covers many more details of the twelve days and their background than I can include here. I strongly recommend it for reading. It is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

I found many useful details about the crash of the Wingfoot Express in an article written by Jake Uveges for The History Examiner.

Great Chicago Disasters?
Darkest Hours?
City of Scoundrels (Nook)

Big Bill Thompson and the sinking of the Eastland - --

Big Bill Thompson biography -- - Covers Wingfoot and other disasters of 12 days

Aircraft crashes before the Hindenburg -

Illinois disasters -

Additional Information on Big Bill Thompson: - 

Spanish Influenza --

World War I -

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