City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

by Gary Krist



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307917737
Publisher: Books on Tape, Inc.
Publication date: 04/28/2012

About the Author

Gary Krist has written for the New York TimesEsquireSalon, the Washington Post Book World, and elsewhere. He is the author of the bestselling City of Scoundrels and the acclaimed The White Cascade, as well as several works of fiction. He has been the recipient of the Stephen Crane Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Lowell Thomas Gold Medal for Travel Journalism, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Burning Hive: July 21, 1919 xv

Part 1 Collision Course: January 1 to July 21, 1919 21

Part 2 Crisis: July 22 to July 31, 1919 115

Part 3 From the Ashes: August 1, 1919, to late 1920 223

Epilogue: The Two Chicagos: May 14, 1920 261

Acknowledgments 275

Notes 279

Bibliography 321

Index 335

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"(An) eager narrative that delivers vivid reading." — Kirkus Reviews

"The most compelling adventure yarn, full of crashing dirigibles, bloody riots, and classic crooks. Loved it." —Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent

"A lavishly intricate, well-paced account of a great city lashed to the breaking point by a political perfect storm." —New York Times



A Conversation with Gary Krist Author of City Of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Q. The books you've written have ranged very widely, both in genre and in subject matter. What drew you to write narrative nonfiction about Chicago?
A. Whether I'm writing short fiction, thrillers, or narrative history, my goal is always to find compelling stories to tell, and there's no richer source of narrative than a major urban metropolis. The old TV series was right: There really are eight million stories in the naked city. But in this book I'm also trying to tell the larger, overarching story of the city itself—to show how those 8 million (or, in Chicago's case, 3 million) individual narratives coalesced to give rise to the great urban centers we see today.

Q. But why Chicago?
A. Because Chicago, more than any other city in the country, was really what you might call the great test case of urban America in the late-19th and early-20th century. The growth of any large city is inevitably a tumultuous process, full of strife, but with a city of immigrants, it involves an almost Darwinian struggle among scores of different ethnicities, races, and economic classes. And in Chicago—with its huge immigrant population and sudden influx of southern black migrants during the Progressive Era —this process was especially dramatic. Granted, New York might have been bigger and arguably just as diverse, but Chicago was a much younger city, its institutions far less established, and it was growing faster and more chaotically. That's why Chicago, not New York, was regarded as the wonder of the age—precisely because it was a colossus that had sprung up out of nothing over just a few decades. (As Otto von Bismarck famously remarked, "I wish I could go to America if only to see that Chicago.") And, of course, there was no guarantee that it was going to succeed. Would this vastly diverse group of refugees from every corner of the globe really manage to come together and, despite manifold hatreds and competing interests, successfully transform a former frontier village into one of the economic and cultural powerhouses of the world? No one really knew. So Chicago was, to a certain extent, a great experiment. And there were some frightening times when it looked as if the entire experiment might come crashing down under the weight of too many groups of people wanting too many different things.

Q. So what made you choose this particular 12-day period in Chicago's history?
A. It's one of those frightening times that hasn't really been recognized by historians. Every city, of course, goes through critical turning points, and Chicago has had more than its share—the Great Fire of 1871, the world's fair of 1893, the riots of 1968—all of which have been written about before. But no one has really focused on the summer crisis of 1919, when Chicago went from a state of high optimism about its future to the brink of civic collapse and martial law, all within the space of 12 days. World War I was over, and the city had just begun implementing its great vision for the future—the so-called Plan of Chicago, architect Daniel Burnham's utopian redevelopment scheme that was supposed to turn Chicago into "the Metropolis of the World." But on the very same day that the City Council was voting on this blueprint for urban perfection, the whole city started coming apart in a terrifying way. A blimp crashed into the downtown financial district, a horrifying race riot broke out, a train and streetcar strike paralyzed the city, and a brutal child murder made people wonder whether even their next-door neighbors could be trusted—all over 12 short days. To those living through it, it looked as if the entire fabric of normal existence—the underpinning of basic stability that any society rests on—was suddenly unraveling before their eyes. I remember sitting in the newspaper microfilm room at the Chicago Public Library, reading about all of this in a state of utter incredulity. It was such a vivid illustration of how the very same energies and ambitions that combine to build a great American city can so easily go awry and threaten to destroy it.

Q. But Chicago obviously survived the crisis. What happened?
A. Well, it's hard to sum up in a few words, but ultimately it came down to something very personal—a late-night showdown between the Mayor of Chicago and the Governor of Illinois (who absolutely loathed each other) over whether to turn the militia loose on the streets of the city. Thanks largely to the outcome of that clash of personalities, order was eventually restored. And as so often happens in the wake of disasters, the city eventually came back in some ways stronger than before—though for a time it certainly didn't look as if it would.

Q. There are so many intriguing characters in the cast of City of Scoundrels. Was there one figure that stood out as your favorite?
A. No question about it: Big Bill Thompson, the mayor. Big Bill is really a narrative historian's greatest gift—a loud, outrageous blowhard in a cowboy hat who liked to think of himself as "the People's David," defending the average Chicagoan against the Goliaths of wealth and privilege. The local press liked to depict him as an extravagantly corrupt demagogue and buffoon, which to an extent he was, and he was certainly guilty of some shamefully dirty fighting against his enemies. But he was also an extremely savvy politician who was remarkably ahead of his time in things like bringing African Americans into the political process. And say what you will about him, many of the civic monuments that make today's Chicago such a remarkable urban showcase were created under the leadership of "Big Bill the Builder" (another of his favorite nicknames), even if, thanks to the economics of machine politics, they ended up costing the taxpayers a lot more than they should have. I think Big Bill deserves a place right up there in the pantheon of great American con artists, maybe somewhere between Huey Long and P.T. Barnum.

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