#646: Little-Known Facts

June 13th, 2016

The following is an excerpt from a piece I’ll be reading tonight, June 13, 2016, at Is This a Thing?, a FREE storytelling series at O’Shaughnessy’s Public House in Ravenswood.

Tonight’s theme is Little Known Facts, so I decided to share a mishmash of some of the odd Chicagoana I’ve learned from writing this site and from running the Chicago Corruption Walking Tour. 

It’s about how I get through the day knowing all the often-depressing facts both require, plus about some of the ghosts following me around the city.

The Art Institute of Chicago is beautiful, but everybody knows that.

The stately downtown retreat between the gray stone lions is a temple of art, history, culture and beauty. You can stroll by thousands of years and hundreds of cultures’ worth of painting, sculpture, pottery, costume, architecture and design. More than 300,000 breathtaking pieces.

Here’s the little-known fact: The Art Institute of Chicago exists because a woman’s legal rights didn’t. Her name was Sarah Daggett.

A bit of history. As early as 1836, a year before the town of Chicago became a city, the lakefront was deemed public land, “forever open, clear and free.”

The specifics of the law have changed over the years, but it’s land meant – by law – for barbecues, picnics, Frisbee and a place in a choked urban area to have a moment of peaceful green.

Developing it would be, to quote lakefront watchdog A. Montgomery Ward, who spent millions of his own money to keep the Field Museum off of the grass and peace we now call Grant Park. “transforming the breathing spot for the poor into a showground of the educated rich.”

So, whether or not we happen to personally like the art museum in it, why do we have a four-story building in a park?

In the 1880s, the city wanted to build a world-class art museum for the upcoming Columbian Exhibition world’s fair. Under the law of the time, all they needed to build that museum on park land was the unanimous consent of all adjacent property owners.

Two property owners, William Leland and his neighbor Sarah Daggett, didn’t consent. Leland got an injunction. Daggett joined it.

The world’s fair was the ticking clock on this. If the Art Institute would be opened by the start of the fair, it would receive $200,000 of World’s Columbian Exposition funds for construction. If not, the museum planners would have to pay that money — roughly $5.3 million in today’s cash — out of pocket.

Political pressure mounted. Personal pressure mounted. The suit went up to the Illinois Supreme Court. The newspapers, their friends, their officials all yelled, screamed, pushed for these two to drop their completely legal opposition to this museum. Leland caved, but Sarah Daggett would not give in, would not sign away her consent.

So her husband did it for her.

It was not his property or even shared property. The property adjacent to the future Art Institute was wholly owned by Sarah Daggett. But she was a woman. Under the law at the time, a husband could sign legal documents on behalf of his wife, even if her personal objections were a well-known matter of public record.

We have this beautiful, amazing museum that I truly love with all my heart, we have this beautiful museum directly, wholly and entirely because American law considered women inferior.

Little-known fact.

My name’s Paul. I’m a journalist, blogger and tour guide. I run the Chicago Corruption Walking Tour. It’s popular. A lot of people want to hear these little known facts of injustice and sin bouncing around my head.

I know the elevated Loop trains exists because of Charles Yerkes, who would hire prostitutes to seduce and blackmail lawmakers who opposed his attempts to make a streetcar monopoly. Yerkes funded that big observatory in Wisconsin. He has two separate craters on the moon named in his honor.

I know the first murder in Chicago’s history was the stabbing death of translator Jean La Lime in 1812. It might have been a dispute over property, it might have been because La Lime was supplying information to the War Department about the rampant corruption, bribery, smuggling and illegal trading at Fort Dearborn. You’ve never heard of Jean La Lime, but the man who stabbed him to death in a fight, John Kinzie, has streets and schools named in his honor. They buried Jean La Lime where the now-closed Jazz Record Mart sits. The Chicago History Museum still owns his corpse.

I’ve read the Chicago Police Department’s annual statistical summary from 1974, a year whose record of 974 murders still stands.

I’m full of all these little-known facts, these depressing, defying stories of corruption both economic and spiritual. I can’t take a train without seeing Charles Yerkes, can’t pass the Jazz Record Mart without seeing Jean La Lime.

So how can I go to the Art Institute and not see Sarah Daggett? How can I enjoy this wonderful, wonderful museum knowing what I know? Now that you know Sarah Daggett’s story, how can you?

I get through by knowing little-known facts…

To find out the happy little-known facts that get me through the day, come to Is This a Thing? at 7 p.m. tonight at O’Shaughnessy’s Public House in Ravenswood.

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