Plan of Chicago
Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel
Frank Lloyd Wright 10, 1994
Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect
When the forces of good are mobilized against Frank Cowperwood, the financial predator in Theodore Dreiser’s The Titan, they have to use tainted instruments to encompass his downfall. Smiling Mike Tiernan and Emerald Pat Kerrigan, saloonkeepers and vote deliverers, are the sordid men who wield power in Chicago’s Loop district. Dreiser modeled them closely upon Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna, the most famous ward bosses in the scrambling years of Chicago’s growth. Bathhouse was elected an alderman in 1892, when the city was creating the Columbian Exposition. He remained in the office for forty-five years, ending his days of power as a flunky to A1 Capone.
But in his prime, he and Hinky Dink were lords of the combined forces of the First Ward, with its daytime bustle around Chicago’s grand new skyscrapers and its night-time swarm of transients and regulars through the red light districts along the Chicago River’s South Branch. The police made life safe for the illegal businesses of “Bath and the Hink,” and the two of them made elections safe for Chicago’s cultured rulers, men like Carter Harrison II, educated abroad and at Yale Law School, the inheritor of his father’s office as mayor of Chicago.
Harrison, in his charming autobiography, treats Coughlin and Kenna as Dogberrys he used for his own amusement. He likes to quote their malapropisms—Coughlin protesting that honesty always “caricatured” his campaigns. When the flamboyant Coughlin seemed to be going too far, Harrison asked the dour partner, Kenna, if his friend were crazy, and got this answer: “No, John isn’t dotty and he ain’t full of dope. To tell you the God’s truth, Mr. Mayor, they ain’t found the name for it yet.”
But Carter Harrison II, for all his condescension, needed his cronies. He admits that he was pulled through his close 1911 election by “the flop vote”—the flop houses emptied out by Coughlin and Kenna, sailors and other transients voting as if they were ward residents. Harrison adds, stoically: “In politics you must take them as they come.” Coughlin and Kenna were the eleven-foot poles he used to touch even worse parts of the ward.
My theory in dealing with the more unsavory individuals, with whom political fate insisted on throwing me, was to exert what I had of skill and intelligence in lifting them to as high a standard of political philosophy as I might, the while I held to my own standards.
It is a standard of political life—“I use the crooks, but I’m not a crook”—honored continuously into the era of Richard J. Daley.
The shaping of that political culture made sense in Chicago’s early years. Though “Bath” and “Hink” dealt largely with the Irish of the First Ward, who spoke their own form of the English language, aldermen to other wards were literally ambassadors to foreign populations, those speaking German, Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Russian, Greek …