#715: Historic Aldermen Who Would Hurt You Very, Very Badly

November 21st, 2016

On the site of the Dirksen Federal Building, where three of our four convict governors saw their trial date, in a long-dead hotel called the Great Northern, following the adjournment of the Republican County Central committee on a Wednesday night in mid-September of 1895, Chicago Ald. Buck McCarthy bit off the ear of Ald. Joe Lammers.

Lammers was not the only Chicago alderman of the 1800s to get a body part bitten off in a fight.

The history of the Chicago City Council, like most histories where the word “colorful” gets thrown around, is mostly crap and romance. I first read about Lammers, McCarthy and the unfortunate Jim d’App in a Chicago Tribune article from 1900 nostalgically yearning for the days of the “Strong Arm” politician.

I didn’t realize until halfway through the article that “Strong Arm” wasn’t a metaphor.

“Those who are still alive are most of them settled down, and in the days of their peaceful and quiet old age watch with something like contempt the careers of a new generation of political bosses, who depend more on intrigue and careful manipulation than upon the strength of their good right arms and their reputations as fighting men,” the article from 1900 said.

So, despite the fact these alderman brawlers from the era of the saloonkeeper aldermen were causing nostalgia eight years before the coffee filter, let me be very clear: These were not cool rebel badasses. They were 19th-century thug brawlers who beat down the cool rebels.

If these violent figures of political authority met you, they would dislike you, call you the 1880s equivalent of “effeminate wussy” and possibly stab your wussy 21st-century face.

That said, let’s talk about Joe Lammers’ ear.

Due to a combination of newspapers being partisan nonsense in the 1800s and a general Victorian taste for euphemism, the Trib archives aren’t the best at describing what actually went down that night in the Great Northern, just alluding to a disfigurement and saying the fight “was done not altogether in accordance with the Marquis of Queensberry rules.”

It’s not until five years after the fight we get more description, with one article describing McCarthy pulling Lammers’ coat over his eyes and pummeling him and another article straight-up saying 29th Ward Ald. McCarthy bit off Lammers’ ear.

McCarthy got his the spring after the fight, getting the crapped kicked out of him during a Springfield convention “in the building at the State fair ground, devoted on ordinary occasions to the exhibit of fat sheep.”

Reports vary whether it was Ald. Billy Webb of the 29th Ward (wards had two aldermen at the time) or a Webb supporter named Jimmy Murphy.

The Webb version of the story “ended when Webb had beaten ‘Buck’s’ face into a sheep’s head and had thrown him into one of the pens,” while the Murphy version has “a slim, sloping shoulder lad who would look like an easy pugilistic mark for any 130-pound man” giving big Buck a black eye, so drama-wise, I could go either way on this.

The Trib had fun with this one, boasting “Carry the news to Lammers” one day and having a pretty swank political cartoon the next.

While aldermanic violence didn’t stay part of Chicago’s political landscape, Lammers’ 15th Ward tackled the McCarthy-Lammers ear brawl using a political tool that survived the centuries: meaningless feel-good legislation.

In two resolutions, the second of which was passed a few blocks from my house, the 15th Ward passed non-binding advisory resolutions condemning “the most cowardly, brutal, unjustifiable, and inhuman treatment that has ever been received by a citizen of Chicago in its full history.”

I guess they had forgotten when Ald. James “Jim d’App” Appleton had his thumb and a chunk of his lip bitten off in a barroom brawl nine years earlier.

“I think he was after my nose, but he knocked out one tooth and the last time took away a piece of my lip with his teeth,” the duly-elected alderman of the Second Ward said.

Although the de-thumbing happened in 1886, the story really goes back to 1884, when a political operative named Black Jack Yattaw straight-up killed a guy who yelled at him for rigging an election.

Julius Yattaw was a saloonkeeper and later “bumboat” captain who ran “a floating saloon frequented by the scum of the city.”

Yattaw skirted federal liquor law and maritime statutes by anchoring his floating bar to the lake bed instead of the pier, which somehow put him outside U.S. jurisdiction. City jurisdiction only extended three miles out into the lake, so gambling and drinking could go on there unimpeded.

He could have been nabbed on state law, but whether or not he was raided depended entirely on how much the mayor at the particular moment cared about Black Jack’s boat of drunks.

Violent, scarred and also earless, Yattaw was made a U.S. marshal to observe voting in the 1884 presidential election. When a poll watcher caught Yattaw his way into the election judges’ room, presumably to stuff the ballot box, guns were drawn, a big mob gathered and an election constable named either William or, by some sources, James Curran ended up dead.

Black Jack was tried, but cleared. He would later get in a fight with the Second Ward boss, Ald. “Jim d’App” Appleton, who apparently whupped the bumboat captain but good.

One of the men involved in the 1884 election-murder was a political operative named Ike Rivers, heavily involved in black politics of the era. Appleton had pushed him out of a cushy patronage appointment as a mail carrier and, by 1886, it had become a constant bone of contention between the men.

In 1886, drunk as a skunk, Rivers stumbled into the saloon Appleton owned, brought up the mailman job and attacked him. It was the first time d’App lost a fight and, presumably, the first time he lost a thumb too.

History and politics are, well, they’re weird. The good old days seem good by virtue of being old, but each era was horrible in its own special way.

The 1900 story longing for the “Strong Arm” politicians of yore, had a bit of condemnation for the then-new breed of politicos.

I find it funny that the two First Ward aldermen they singled out for ridicule — tiny Hinky Dink Kenna and, in the segment below, clotheshorse Bathhouse Coughlin — are today synonymous with crime, corruption, amazing parties and that ever-changing era “the good old days” themselves.

“In the good old days,” the story from the year 1900 wrote, “the fighting politicians of the First would have beaten the head off a candidate for office who wore vests covered with large pink polka dots and sang sentimental love ditties of his own composition.”

Read more ridiculous history from the Tribune archives

A boozier example of romanticizing the past

What's this?

You are currently reading #715: Historic Aldermen Who Would Hurt You Very, Very Badly by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

  • -30-