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Chicago by Gaslight: A History of Chicago's Underworld, 1880-1920

Chicago by Gaslight: A History of Chicago's Underworld, 1880-1920

by Richard Lindberg LINDBERG, Bob Deckert (Illustrator)

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This book revises the picture of the glittering Chicago of impressive mansions and museums; it exposes the city's corrupt underbelly and the realities of life in an age which is often assumed to have been simpler and more moral than ours. Includes chapters on the Haymarket riot, the gamblers' wars, the notorious levee red-light district and institutionalized graft.


This book revises the picture of the glittering Chicago of impressive mansions and museums; it exposes the city's corrupt underbelly and the realities of life in an age which is often assumed to have been simpler and more moral than ours. Includes chapters on the Haymarket riot, the gamblers' wars, the notorious levee red-light district and institutionalized graft.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"... lively anecdotes of the social elite, the powerful gamblers, criminals and corrupt "boodling" politicians." — Publishers Weekly

"Mr. Lindberg... has done a prodigious amount of research and has come up with a host of new and delicious details." — Chicago Sun-Times

Publishers Weekly
"Lindbert's panoramic view of Chicago...is studded with lively anecdotes of the social elite, powerful gamblers, criminals and corrupt 'bloodling' politicians."

Product Details

Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.70(d)

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Chicago by Gaslight

A History of Chicago's Netherworld, 1880-1920

By Richard Lindberg

Academy Chicago Publishers

Copyright © 1996 Richard Lindberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89733-421-1


Derby Day, 1885

The social event of the summer season in Chicago in 1885 was the running of the famed American Derby at the Washington Park Race Track, 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Under a radiant blue sky on June 27, the carriages left the portechochères of the stone mansions on Prairie and Michigan avenues, Grand and Drexel boulevards, the homes of the Ryersons, the Catons, the Chauncey Blairs, the Armours. A man's carriage was the measure of his worth when he travelled to Washington Park for the Derby. For weeks, the C.P. Kimball Company had been producing carriages for this day. Twenty-six hand-crafted rigs had been sold to Chicago millionaires in just twenty-one days: double suspension victorias, demi-landaus, tilburys, stanhope phaetons, Tally-ho coaches, langhams, dog carts. The true display of regal ostentation was the promenade down Grand Boulevard and across to Drexel, with its tree-lined parkways and great houses. And while some men chose to ride ahead of their family coaches on their favorite thoroughbreds, everyone wanted an English coachman and an English groom. The demand was so great that some "English" coachmen were actually Americans with fake accents and fake resumes.

The drive south to the racetrack took half an hour at a leisurely pace. A brief noon shower had given way to sunshine, so the carriage tops were lowered and ladies in the conveyances could twirl their parasols as they acknowledged friends they saw along the route. The boulevards were alive with people.

A social observer commented in the Chicago Inter-Ocean: "Such a gathering of thoroughbred animals, such a meeting of the highest social elements, such a display of fashion, elegance and wealth and beauty had never been seen upon any race course in the country."

Washington Park had been created in the winter of 1882–83 when it was obvious that Chicago Driving Park, on the western fringe of the city, was inadequate. The new racetrack was officially chartered on February 10, 1883, "to promote good fellowship among its members by providing a clubhouse and pleasure grounds for their entertainment where at all times they may meet for social intercourse, and further, to encourage by providing the proper facilities, raising, improving, breeding, training, and exhibiting horses at meetings to be held at stated times each year." Architect Solon Beman's design of the clubhouse was financed by 174 stockholders, where access was limited to the 800 families prominent in Chicago since the days of John Kinzie and Mark Beaubien. These were in the main of English descent — the city's Swedes, Poles, Irish, Jews and Germans were excluded. It was considered a great honor to belong to the Washington Park Clubhouse.

The city's elite belonged to clubs. One of the most prestigious was the Commercial Club, where the sixty members were the captains of trade and industry, who gathered on the last Saturday of each month to discuss an assigned topic over brandy and cigars. These topics, of which members were informed in advance by the club secretary through a courier, ranged from discussion of railroad rates to elegant plans for civic improvement. There were many clubs: the Union League, the Union, the Iroquois, the Calumet, with its imposing 8-by-13 foot portrait of Ulysses Grant which inspired Long John Wentworth, newspaper editor, congressman and twice mayor of Chicago, to donate a 10-by-15 foot painting of himself to hang near it. There was also the Chicago Club, where millionaires gathered to dine and play poker, and where the unwritten motto was said to be, "Dogs, women, Democrats and reporters need not apply."

But the women had their own clubs, which put heavy emphasis on culture and social reform. There was the Fortnightly Club, founded by Kate Newell Doggett in 1874, where Bertha Palmer and Ellen Henrotin read papers on the obligations of wealth and the social status of women in America and Europe. Mrs Henrotin founded the Friday Club, also concerned with literary pursuits. And, too, there was the Chicago Woman's Club, headquartered in the Art Institute, and open to all interested women, and not just the wealthy activists who were its driving force. The club had 500 members; papers were read on literary topics, but social reform was also on its agenda. Through this club the women put strong pressure on Chicago politicians.

The popular press was not interested in this aspect of the lives of millionaires' wives. "Toilets of unusual elegance," wrote the Inter-Ocean reporter on Derby Day, "worn by ladies of position, grace and beauty were seen on every side." It was noted that the ladies wore cool white gowns — at least the gowns looked cool, but they had long tight sleeves which required a button hook to work the numerous buttons running to the elbow, and were worn over layers of muslin-lined skirts and petticoats, under which were hip pads and a bustle, usually made of whalebone. Less affluent women resorted to bundles of newspaper. In the clubhouse, the ladies sipped lemonade and listened to Austin & Rosenbecker's First Regimental Band playing selections from Offenbach operettas. They may well have gossiped about Chicago celebrities like the Leiter girls, daughters of Marshall Field's first partner, who were living in Washington while they looked for titled foreign husbands, a search that was to prove successful for three of them — one, Mary, was to marry Lord Curzon, who became Viceroy of India.

Outside the clubhouse, dark clouds gathered. The tops were hastily raised on carriages near the guardrails. The first drops fell, and then it rained heavily for almost two hours. The track, which had been "fast," degenerated into a muddy quagmire with pools of water. The people in the mud-splashed, topless carriages were soaked, their elegant summer outfits ruined. They were in no mood to buy the programs offered by small boys dashing between the carriages.

At three o'clock, the rain stopped and the clouds broke, to cheers from the grandstand. The jockeys, their feet sinking in mud, came out from the stables to inspect the track. The high rollers went back to the odds boards as club secretary John E. Brewster made his way across a makeshift wooden sidewalk to confer with the judges after which Brewster rang the bell to signal the beginning of the races.

The American Derby, the third featured event in the five-race card, and the richest stake in the West, was for three-year-olds, the finest horseflesh in the country. The favorite that day was Ten Stone, owned by Edward Corrigan, a Chicago racing promoter who also ran the West Side grounds. In 1891, Corrigan was to go into direct competition with Washington Park when he founded the Hawthorne Track in the suburb of Cicero.

Just before race time, Ten Stone was scratched. The odds were upset because Isaac Murphy, the "Colored Archer," the most successful jockey in America, was not riding. Murphy had ridden Modesty to win the 1884 Derby. The new favorite was Volante, owned by the Baldwin Stables of California and "Plunger" Walton, a big New York gambler and speculator with an unsavory reputation, rushed to the post to strike a last-minute deal with Corrigan: $500 to the Colored Archer if he agreed to ride, and $1,000 to Corrigan if Volante won. The Archer took ten seconds to decide, and mounted Volante. This upset the odds again, but Walton already had $2,000 on Volante, a magnificent horse wearing black and red with a Maltese cross, the Baldwin colors. Alta Favor and Alf Estell took an early lead, but Volante, urged on by Murphy with whip and spur, forged ahead as they entered the final turn, and won handily. Alta Favor finished second, a full two lengths behind Volante. Plunger Walton was given an $8,000 marker.

That was the high point of the day; people began to leave the park without waiting for the last two races. The crowd, which had been estimated at 20,000 — and which was to go as high as 40,000 in future years — dwindled to 2,000 as the broughams and landaus wended their way out of the gates.

It was still too light in the late summer afternoon for the gas lamps to flicker on Michigan Avenue, which was residential then and, north of the Chicago River, was called Pine Street, a very desirable, and expensive, place to live. "Those were leisurely days," Edith Ogden, the wife of Carter Harrison, Jr., recalled in Strange to Say, her memoir, "when life seemed easy and there was plenty of time to spare. We had the telephone and the electric light, and to us it seemed that there was nothing more to be dreamed of. But we had much to learn."

There were the "elegant eighties," and the "gay nineties." Since the "roaring twenties," no single adjective has been used to describe a decade.

The final Derby Day at Washington Park was held in June, 1904, just days before Mayor Carter Harrison put an end to trackside betting. The park itself was razed in 1908, because the Washington Park Improvement Association wanted to reclaim the property for commercial development.

Life changed rapidly in Chicago, called by some the most American of cities. As the carriages wended their way home in 1885, the occupants were for the most part unaware that a year later the city was to be shaken by a traumatic event that would blacken the name of Chicago around the world and be permanently inscribed in the history of the labor movement and of American jurisprudence.




On July 21, 1877, a warm Saturday afternoon, an enthusiastic working-class crowd packed Sack's Hall at 20th and Brown streets in Chicago to attend a rally called by the local Working-Men's Party. The air was electric, because some days earlier, on July 16, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had cut their workers' wages by ten percent, and this had set off an immediate strike and an eruption of rage that was eventually to paralyze the entire country in a general strike. The main speaker of the evening, who cautioned against violence and advocated change by ballot box, was Albert Parsons, a lean, handsome 29-year-old Southerner, a printer at the Chicago Times, who had gained a reputation as a popular labor agitator. Parsons's forbears had come over on the second voyage of the Mayflower and some of them had distinguished themselves in the Revolutionary War. Parsons had been born in Montgomery, Alabama, where his father owned a factory. Orphaned at an early age, Albert had been raised by an older brother, an attorney, newspaper publisher and slave owner, in Tyler, Texas. At twelve, Parsons was apprenticed to the proslavery owner of the Galveston News and a year later ran off to join the Lone Star Grays, Confederate volunteers. He returned to Galveston, but ran off again to fight for the Confederacy until the end of the war, when he was seventeen.

After the war, Parsons did some farming and earned enough to study at Waco University — now called Baylor — where apparently he began to change his political attitudes, becoming a Radical Republican and speaking out for Negro rights. His brother, too, joined the Radical Republicans. By 1868 Parsons had incurred such hatred from Waco whites that he had to leave the city. He went to work for his brother, who now published the Houston Telegraph, as a roving reporter and promotion man and thus met his wife, Lucy, who claimed to be of Mexican and American Indian descent — a claim open to doubt. Her biographer has said she was born a Negro slave. There is also a question about whether Parsons and Lucy were ever legally married. In any case, after he met Lucy, Albert worked in various government positions in Austin, Texas, and then, in late 1873, moved to Chicago, where he joined a typographer's union. It was two years after the Chicago Fire, and the city was being rebuilt. However, it had also been hit by the panic of 1873 which was to continue for six years; thousands upon thousands were out of work, and those who had jobs suffered from cuts in pay. People were starving, the homeless were everywhere and this led to a new militancy in the working poor who rioted, marched and turned to the labor movement in growing numbers, at the same time escalating their rhetoric to threaten revolution against "the ruling classes."

When he arrived in Chicago, Parsons immediately drew a connection between the situation of the new freedmen and the suffering of white workers. In 1876 he joined the two-year-old Social Democratic Working-Men's Party of North America and became a gifted speaker and worker for them, earning the hatred of the establishment as he had in Waco. The Tribune attacked him and his party, which was divided because so many of its members were German immigrants who viewed the English speakers with suspicion. The whole Socialist movement was in fact fragmented and eventually, at a convention in Philadelphia in 1876, the International Working-Men's Association, the Social Democrats and labor parties in Illinois and Ohio fused into the Working-Men's Party of the United States. Parsons was the head of the English speakers in Chicago, and the chief orator. He also ran unsuccessfully several times for alderman and for state and county offices on the party ticket. He was, in short, a fountain of energy for the Socialist cause.

The Saturday rally was a success and on Sunday, as the general strike crept nearer, handbills were distributed announcing a mass meeting for Monday night, July 23, in an open space called Market Square, at Madison and Market streets. The response was enormous: workers poured in, in torchlight parades, nearly fifteen thousand of them. Once again Albert Parsons was the main speaker, hailed with shouts from the multitude. Although he praised the Eastern railroad strikers, he repeated his admonitions against violence and urged his audience to use the ballot box to vote for the Working-Men's Party and to organize themselves in unions. The rally eventually disbanded without incident.

By the next afternoon, Tuesday, the entire city was paralyzed by a general strike. Parsons was singled out by the newspapers as the chief rabble-rouser. On Tuesday morning, when he reported for work at the Times where he had been employed for three years, Parsons found that he had been fired and, in addition, blacklisted, so that he would not find work as a typesetter. His fellow workers avoided him. From the Times building, Parsons went to the Arbeiter-Zeitung, which was the party's German-language newspaper. A few hours later two men came in, with pistols under their coats, and told Parsons they had instructions to take him to the office of Mayor Monroe Heath, in city hall. The room was filled with policemen, city officials and various prominent citizens, all clearly upset, and chiefly with Parsons, who was told to sit down opposite Michael Hickey, the chief of police.

Hickey was a twenty-year veteran of the force; he had been accused many times of corruption and intrigues of various kinds. In 1873 he had quit the force in a rage because of charges of dishonesty levelled against him by the Chicago Post and Mail. But he was reinstated, and in 1875 Harvey D. Colvin, who had been elected mayor in a reaction against the prohibition-prone administration of Tribune publisher Joseph Medill, appointed him chief of police to replace Jacob Rehm, who was forced to resign after it was discovered that he had been part of a whiskey ring that had bilked the government of thousands of dollars. Hickey himself had invested in gambling property controlled by Mike McDonald, the city's gambling king, and was later to be accused of allowing Lake Street vice dens to operate full blast. Twenty-five policemen from the Lake Street station were to refuse to testify before a board of inquiry, and on July 9, 1878, Hickey was to be cast out by a 22-to-11 vote of the city council.

Now Hickey began to lecture and question Parsons in an insulting way, accusing him of coming up from Texas to start a revolution. Parsons attempted to explain that he had nothing to do with the strike and had simply spoken at a meeting, but the people in the room kept interrupting him, demanding that he be locked up, or even lynched. This went on for two hours, after which Hickey walked Parsons to the door and told him he should leave the city at once because his life was in danger; he was being followed everywhere by Hickey's men. He could be assassinated at any time by the "Board of Trade men who would as leave hang [him] to a lamp-post as not." In the light of what happened to Parsons eventually, this was a dreadful prophecy.

Parsons was attacked in the evening paper, the Times, for which he had recently worked. Undaunted, he went that night to try to get work at the composing room of the Tribune. He was talking to a union friend there, when two thugs came in, seized him and pushed him out the door. They dragged him down five flights of stairs and, waving a gun at his head, threatened to blow his brains out if he ever returned to the Tribune. The other employees upstairs were in a considerable state of upset and had to be persuaded to return to work by Joseph Medill.


Excerpted from Chicago by Gaslight by Richard Lindberg. Copyright © 1996 Richard Lindberg. Excerpted by permission of Academy Chicago Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Richard C. Lindberg grew up in Chicago's Norwood Park neighborhood. His nine books include "Chicago by Gaslight: A History of the Chicago Netherworld, 1880-I 920, The White Sox Encyclopedia, "and "The Armchair Companion to chicago Sports. "He is the former editor of the "Illinois Police and Sheriff's News "and served as head writer and senior editor for the Edgar Award-winning "Encyclopedia of World Crime."

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