#631: Uncle Bathhouse

May 9th, 2016

“Bathhouse John Coughlin was my great, great uncle,” she wrote. “Nothing to be proud of, I know.”

I’ve received several interesting letters since starting the corruption walking tour. Some are old friends letting me know they heard me on the radio and “Miss yer face.” One man wrote about his fears the demolition of his childhood home was a land scam.

And then there was Bathhouse Coughlin’s great-great niece, letting me know what the family had been up to.

Bathhouse John and his cohort Hinky Dink Kenna ran vice in the First Ward in the first bits of the 20th century. You ran a brothel, bar or illegal gambling house in the vice district, you paid them protection. 25 bucks a week ($700 in today’s cash) for a small whorehouse, like a massage parlor or assignation house room where people could “meet.” $100 ($2,800 today) a week for a large brothel, up to $125 ($3,500) if it served booze.

Big Jim Colosimo — pimp, extortionist, murderer and sainted forebear of the Chicago mafia — got his start as a precinct captain for Hinky Dink and Bathhouse.

For Alderman Michael Kenna (D-First Ward) and Ald. John Coughlin (D-First Ward).

Because in addition to being vice kingpins, Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse Coughlin were elected public officials of the city of Chicago.

There’s no new information I can give that couldn’t be arranged through a good Google search or a library checkout of 1943’s “Lords of the Levee” by Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan. You can also run to the Chicago History Museum to see the jewel-clad badge a grateful or fearful public gave Kenna for his service to the city.

The woman who sent me the email confessing to her lineage was young, pretty. The little photo of her that showed up in the corner of the Gmail showed her in a moment of goofy repose with someone I assumed was her boyfriend or husband.

Bathhouse’s niece looked happy and healthy and normal.

I won’t share too much more of her letter. I wasn’t sworn to confidence, but I’m pretty sure on the spectrum between silence and publishing sections of her note on a semi-popular journo blog with an email blast, she was expecting a lean toward the former.

I will say that I found the story of her grandfather’s path from Irish immigrant “at the age of 19 and alone” to WWI veteran Chicago cop more fascinating.

I’ll say this to the pretty lady who said her uncle a few greats back is nothing to be proud of: You’re right.

But you’re also wrong.

The options for a poor person in this era, a boozer or scumbag or just a joe who came from the wrong country, were not piety or sin. The two options were to get ignored or to have a pal like Bathhouse John.

Kenna and Coughlin were scumbags, but they were scumbags for the people. They cared about their constituents, loved them in a way the hoity-toit millionaires in city hall never would. The social system was broken; a Dickensian town ruled by professional heirs and new-money robber barons. Any attempts by the huddled masses to improve their lots were met with violent, Haymarket Massacre-style resistance.

Your grandfather rose above those struggles; your great-great morally succumbed.

Your great-great uncle lined his pockets and opened the door for a near-century of mob control of the old First Ward. His scams, both in his role as alderman and as vice lord, remain legendary in this crooked city. But he helped people who had no other friends.

I’m not you and make no claim to insight. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And I haven’t been asked.

But I see no need for either shame or pride when thinking on your dirty, sainted ancestor.

From a broken city, from a broken world, from a broken time of vice and sin and a buck to be had, “fascinating and complicated” isn’t a bad legacy to leave.

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