HISTORY IN CONTEXT
WEDNESDAY, FRIDAY & SUNDAY
Christmas for the Gilded Age I
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Friday, September 24, 2010
I think the end of the Good Times began on a Sunday, November 22, 1905. Marshall Fields Jr, was 38 years old at the time, but that was as old as he would ever get. He was the eldest son and heir of one of America’s greatest fortunes when he appeared at Chicago’s Mercy hospital that morning with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He would die there, just after five o’clock in the evening, five days later. And there has never been a good explanation as to how it had happened. But its effect, if painfully slow, was also inevitable.
The official story was that while in his bedroom that morning Marshall (above) had been cleaning his gun, dropped it and the gun had gone off. The butler and a nurse said they had immediately rushed to his aide. But a reporter for the Daily News tried to replicate the accident and his weapon refused to discharge. The papers were afraid of losing advertising from the Marshall Fields Department stores, so the public questions stopped there - for a time.
The Field’s mansions, father’s and son’s were on “Millionaires Row”, Prairie Avenue on Chicago’s south side. It was home to Pullman, Armour, Sears, and Fields, in fact 70 of the most powerful families in the Midwest lived within less than a square mile, and not a place usually visited by public scandal. After the funeral, Marshall’s widow and three children moved in with his father. But it stood no chance of being a happy home. The very next year the elder Fields died of pneumonia, and the widow returned to her native England, leaving behind an open wound - caused, many thought, by a section of Chicago called the Levee
Less than a half mile away from the Field’s mansions was the Levee District, home to sin and vice of unsurpassed depravity and popularity, bordered by 18th street on the north, 23rd street on the south, South Clark on the west and South Wabash Avenue on the east. And at its immoral center was the Everleigh Club.
For eight years Ada and Minna Everleigh were “Queens of the Levee”, running one of the most popular brothels in the Chicago. Minna (right) famously greeted each customer with a delightfully wicked, “How’s my boy?”
Their thirty girls catered to an upscale clientele, charging $50 just to get in the front door of 2131-2133 South Dearborn. Once inside the plush parlor, extras were extra. It was common knowledge that Marshall Fields Jr. had been a regular at the Everleigh Club for years, and the rumor was that Marshall had been shot at the club by one of the girls, or had shot himself because he was being blackmailed by one of the "ladies".
To the south of the Club was Ed Weiss’s bawdy house, "The Capital", and to the north was "The Sapphro", run by brother Lou Weiss. In fact, jammed into the Levee were dozens of such houses of prostitution; Dago Franks, French Em’s, Old 92, and in cutthroat competition with the Everleigh sisters was Madam Vic Shaw’s house at Dearborn and Cullerton. In between the houses were opium dens, cocaine factories, gambling joints, peep shows and bars - lots and lots of bars.
Ringmasters of this sin circus, Princes of the Levee, were two men; the big, blustery city alderman, John J. Coughlin (right), and his diminutive doppelganger, Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna (left).
The gimlet eyed “Hinky Dink” (above) received his nickname because he stood just 5 feet tall. He was normally “…glum and quietly dressed”, and usually chewing on a cigar. He was a teetotaler, and his wife was temperance worker. He also was an Alderman, as well as owning and operating several bars and gambling houses in the Levee, the most famous of which was The Workingman’s Exchange on Clark Street.
Here barflies, bums, tramps and the homeless could find beer for a nickel, a free lunch and a job as a “repeater”, come Election Day. Given pre-marked ballots by “Ward Heelers” who walked the district, these men spread out to various polling places, where they would trade their pre-marked ballots for blanks. They then returned to the Exchange and handed in their blanks for payment of fifty cents each. While they drank a free beer, their new ballots would be marked and the game would go another round. In twenty years neither "Hinky Dink" nor "Bathhouse" John Coughlin ever lost an election.
“Bathhouse” earned his nickname because he began as an attendant of a bath house, a Levee euphemism for a gambling joint. Coughlin was oversized and overdressed and prone to outbursts of poetry, such as his infamous “She sleeps by the Drainage Canal” and “Why did they build the lovely lake so close to the horrible shore?” His typical “Signs of Spring “concluded, “There are many other signs of spring which come by wireless wire; One of which is Yours Sincerely, who is tuning up his lyre. Just to twang a song to nature 'bout the brooks and fields of green; O, I wonder if I'm understood; I wonder, yes, I ween.”
One of Chicago’s mayors asked Hinky Dink if Bathhouse was just crazy or a drug addict. Hinky Dink replied, “To tell you the god’s truth, Mayor, they ain’t found a name for it yet.” These two men had a genius for skimming protection money from the Levee. Their enforcement arm was the Chicago Police, and in addition to their weekly take of up to a thousand dollars per establishment, they sold tickets to the annual First Ward Ball. In the words of one web site, “Every employee of a house of ill-repute or gambling den, every robber, pickpocket, safe-cracker, and streetwalker, and every bartender, bawdy house entertainer, and low groggery proprietor, all were required to buy tickets…”
The Ball was held each December, and Ike Bloom, owner of “Freiberg’s Dance Hall”, was responsible for selling the tickets. Ike was half clown and half cold blooded killer, whose club was “the most notorious place in Chicago”, which was quite a charge, considering. The ball was billed as a charity, and in 1906, as the press began to unearth the Levee on their front pages, a reporter from the Tribune asked Hinky Dink where all money went. Hinky Dink replied, “Charity, education, burying the dead, and general ward benefits for the people” Asked what he meant by ‘education’, Hinky got a little testy. “It consists of hiring good halls and good speakers to teach the people of the First ward to vote the straight Democratic ticket.” And that was the end of that interview.
Each year the First Ward Ball grew in size and sank in reputation. The 1908 festivity attracted “20,000 drunken, yelling, brawling revelers” who filled the Chicago Coliseum on South Wabash Avenue and clogged the streets outside. When the Law And Order League tried to stop the orgy, they inspired Bathhouse to write, “Strike up the march, professor, and I will lead the way; We'll trip the light fantastic too, until the break of day. Who knows that ere another ball, we'll be outside the city hall; Be gay, but not too gay.” And Hinky Dink groused, “But whenever you hear one of them fellows shouting that Hinky Dink is a menace to society and that he has horns, just keep your hand on your watch. Savvy?”
One newspaper attempted to describe the scene inside the Coliseum. “The crowd was so enormous that when women fainted – a common occurrence – they had to be passed overhead from hand to hand towards the exits. Cigar smoke settled on the floor in such thick fogs that visibility was no greater than 30 feet in any direction. The noise of shuffling feet and murmuring overpowered the sound of the dance band, and fist-fights and shoving erupted in all quarters. When Lyman Atwell, photographer for the Tribune…began setting up his flash and tripod, security notified (Bathhouse) who…personally jumped on Atwell, breaking his camera and knocking him to the ground…
"As usual, things started to get interesting at midnight, when the regiments of madams and their inmates showed up, led by the Everleigh Sisters. This caused another influx of thousands of men to attempt to enter the building…” Hinky Dink lorded over the affair from a table off the main floor. Then, at midnight, Bathhouse, wearing a green jacket, a mauve vest, lavender pants and a stove pipe silk hat led a winding Conga Line called The Grand March. Said the newspsper, “The most infamous party in Chicago history lasted until 5 a.m., when the last drunken revelers staggered out…”
But, since the death of the Fields, the millionaires were speaking with their feet, abandoning their mansions, and moving to the safer Gold Coast and later to the northern suburbs. One newspaper observed that Prairie Avenue had become undesirable to those who it was affordable, and unaffordable to those for whom it was desirable. At the same time it seemed the reformers were gaining power. The establishments in the Levee began to scatter. The 1908 First Ward Ball would prove to be the last.
The mayor finally ordered the Everleigh club (above) closed in October of 1911. The sisters walked away with $1,000,000 in cash. Minna took the change philosophically. “If it weren't for married men”, she admitted, “we couldn't have carried on at all, and if it weren't for cheating married women we could have made another million.” Minna died in 1948, Ada died in 1960. She was 93.
Bathhouse John Coughlin served 46 years as a Chicago Alderman. He died in 1938, $50,000 in debt. “Hinky Dink” Kenna spent the last years of his life alienated from his family, living in a suite in the Blackstone hotel, cared for only by a male nurse. He died in 1946. He left behind a million dollars…in cash. His will stipulated that $33,000 of it should be set aside to construct a mausoleum for his grave. His survivors had Hinky’s the will set aside. Instead they marked his passing with an $85 wooden tombstone.
At Hinky’s funeral, half the pews were empty, and few sent flowers. As one old First Ward lobbygog (Ward Heeler) put it, “If you don't go to other people's funerals, they won't go to yours.”
In truth it was not the reformers or the Law and Order League that put the Levee out of business. Few were foolish enough to believe that all those sinners had repented. What killed the sin of the Levee was the coming of Prohibition, which freed the Levee from its confinement, and let it spread out and multiply. The new Prince of Chicago sin was “Big Jim” Colosimo, the man who brought Al Capone to Chicago and who married Victoria Shaw. As Hinky Dink explained, “Chicago ain't no sissy town.”