#611: Jimmy Marshall’s Children

March 23rd, 2016

Every old settler knew little Jimmy Marshall, though few were aware that he was a physician by profession, and a dancing master by calling, in 1834. Always carefully groomed, he was to be seen in his silk hat, black frock coat, dark trousers, well polished boots and immaculate shirt bosom. He was at all times ready to trip the light fantastic; and he tripped it, too. How that nimble little figure would wind through the mazes of the Money Musk or the rollicking Virginia Reel! Those were dances that made his black eyes shine with a brighter luster than the diamond he so much admired…

When selling goods, Marshall’s limber tongue moved as fast as his nimble feet in a double shuffle. I yet seem to hear his “two an’ a ha’f, an’ a ha’f, an’ a ha’f, an’ a ha’f, make it three, three, do I hear? any more than three, three an’ a ha’f, an’ a ha’f, an’ a ha’f I’m bid, make it four,” and so on until knocked down. We shall never forget him as long as the red flag flies.

— Edwin O. Gale, “Reminisces of Early Chicago and Vicinity,” 1902

Jimmy Marshall was an auctioneer, one of the speculators whipping the pre-city of Chicago into a frenzy over land.

Land! Land by the upcoming canal! Land that you could buy for pennies and sell for dollars!

Land in this new place where bubbles grew and grew and never ever burst.

I’ll be brief: In the 1830s, a canal was planned through the swampy portage called Mud Lake. It would connect, by boat, the Mississippi and Great Lakes waterways. Chicago land was soon to be valuable, so speculators rode in to buy up/sell up/ frenzy up the boom.

It was “wildcat banking,” pure economy driven by credit, speculation and straight-up hope. It was the truest form of capitalism there was, is, could be.

The bubble burst in Chicago in 1837, leaving a handful in wealth, the rest paupers.

Moses & Kirkland’s 1895 “History of Chicago: Aboriginal to Metropolitan” recalls both that Gurdon Hubbard made $80,000 on an investment of $66.33 and that:

When the town of Chicago became a city, many of its inhabitants, who had reveled in suppositious wealth for past years, were in sackcloth and ashes, mourning over city lots from which all value had departed…

It was the truest form of capitalism there was, is, could be. We all got greedy, it just panned out for some.

Delayed by the unexpected discovery of a solid layer of bedrock a foot below the soil between the Soganashkie Swamp and Lockport, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed in 1848.

That’s the year the first train tracks were laid in Chicago. Carl Sandburg didn’t write a poem calling the city “player with boats.”

This is the birth. These are the founders. A new city, conceived in ignominy and dedicated to the proposition that there’s a sucker born every minute and one to take him.

The first transfusion of Algren’s “hustler’s blood,” these sainted men, these founding fathers commemorated in street names and high schools were the luckiest of the scammers and the scammed.

When you think of the city’s history, yes think of industry and trade and commerce. Fire, water and hog butchery for the world.

Think of a melting pot for a thousand nations. Think of the Potawatomie, bribed out of their birthright.

But think too of dancing Jimmy Marshall, with a jig and a reel and a fine silk hat, whirling a city into being using nothing more than greed, promises and a limber, silken tongue.

In 1987, a Chicago Reader reporter followed the canal that made Chicago

A history of the canal

A history of Chicago trains

A history of my murderous neighbor, who died decades before I was born

Gerrymandering and amoebae 

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