When 1919 began, the city of Chicago seemed on the verge of transformation. Modernizers had an audacious, expensive plan to turn the city from a brawling, unglamorous place into "the Metropolis of the World." But just as the dream seemed within reach, pandemonium broke loose and the city's highest ambitions were suddenly under attack by the same unbridled energies that had given birth to them.
It began on a balmy Monday afternoon when a blimp in flames crashed through the roof of a busy downtown bank, incinerating those inside. Within days, a racial incident at a crowded South Side beach spiraled into one of the worst urban riots in American history, followed by a transit strike that paralyzed the city. Then, when it seemed as if things could get no worse, police searching for a six-year-old girl discovered her body in a dark North Side basement.
Meticulously researched and expertly paced, City of Scoundrels captures the tumultuous birth of the modern American city, with all of its light and dark aspects in vivid relief.
Now with Extra Libris material, including a reader’s guide and bonus content
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About the Author
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
What People are Saying About This
"(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 itselfto 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 Chicagowith 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 ageprecisely 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 sharethe Great Fire of 1871, the world's fair of 1893, the riots of 1968all 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 futurethe 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 trustedall over 12 short days. To those living through it, it looked as if the entire fabric of normal existencethe underpinning of basic stability that any society rests onwas 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 personala 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 beforethough 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 gifta 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.