The following is a selection from the Chicago Corruption Walking Tour, which I will be leading all summer.
Tickets are available at Dabble.co.
When researching 19-teens and 1920s Chicago Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson, there were several moments when I thought “That is the greatest fact ever.”
When I found out Big Bill repeatedly threatened to punch the king of England in the face to court South Side Irish voters, I thought “That is the greatest fact ever.” When I found out he led a crusade to get pro-British books out of the Chicago Public Library, I thought “That is the greatest fact ever.”
When I found out that he kept his name in the papers after he lost his first re-election bid by announcing a massive expedition to South America in a ship called “The Big Bill” to capture footage of a fish that could climb trees, but then he just hung out in New Orleans for a while, I thought “That’s it! We’ve got it! That is the greatest fact ever.”
Big Bill was hilarious. And that’s what made him dangerous. This loud-mouthed, media-friendly clown in a cowboy hat — Chicago’s last Republican mayor — was the most corrupt public official in Illinois history.
Mayor Thompson was firmly in the pocket of gangsters, first Big Jim Colosimo, then Al Capone. No one knows how much money Capone filtered into Thompson’s campaign funds through various lackeys and cronies. Estimates have been as low as $100,000 — which is $1.4 million in today’s money — to $260,000 — which is $3.6 million.
For his purchase, Capone got a mayor who would let his businesses flourish and then say something ridiculous to keep people and the press distracted by their wacky mayor.
I hate Al Capone by the way.
You walk around the Chicago, you go to the tourist spots, the gift shops, you see those T-shirts of Capone, posters, books. You see gangster tours and books and movies that romanticize this piece of human garbage as if he were some folk hero.
I think of Octavius Granady.
It was the 1928 “Pineapple Primary.” The name pineapple came from gangster slang for a grenade. Thompson’s biggest foe was U.S. Senator Charles Deneen, a rival for power in the Republican party. The two would pit opponents against each other in different GOP races. State’s attorney, governor — one candidate would be Deneen’s guy, the other would be Thompson’s guy.
And in the 1928 primary, Capone’s men started taking Deneen’s guys down. Deneen’s ward committeeman Diamond Joe Esposito — who was a gigantic mobster in his own right — was gunned down. The day of Esposito’s funeral, the houses of both Deneen’s state’s attorney candidate and Deneen himself were bombed.
Big Bill’s camp responded that Senator Deneen must have bombed his own house to discredit the mayor.
But of all the targeted politicos, there was a special treatment reserved for Granady, who was running for alderman.
Al Capone sent two cars of gunmen to hunt down Granady on election day. They chased him by car through town until he crashed into a tree. They gunned him down like a dog in the street. Nine men, including five police officers, were charged with Granady’s murder. No one was convicted.
Why, of all the people running against Thompson candidates, did Octavius Granady get this special treatment?
He committed an unforgivable sin in Capone’s eyes: He ran for office while black.
That’s your Al Capone. That’s your folk hero.
And that’s how you run a city. You rob, extort and murder and get your boy in city hall to prattle on about tree-climbing fish and the king of England to keep the watchdogs distracted.
Big Bill Thompson was an impetuous, bloviating caricature who used spectacle and hot air to distract from his myriad flaws as a leader and as a human. He would launch into anti-immigrant tirades, make ridiculous claims and straight-up dive into hate speech to distract the population from the fact that, when all’s said, he had nothing to say.
Luckily, these days we’re too sharp to support anyone like that.