#945: The Chicago Corruption Walking Tour Book — A Hail Mary Pass with Dinosaurs

June 25th, 2018

For the past two-ish years, I’ve been trying to find a publisher for a book version of the Chicago Corruption Walking Tour.

No dice.

So, in a sort of Hail Mary pass spurred by the fact the Field Museum moved SUE the T. rex out of the main hall so I have to find a new scene-setting bit for the intro anyway, here is the latest draft of the intro. Hopefully, it’ll whet your appetite to either take the tour or to say, “By gad, why I’m a publisher looking to find hot new properties that will appeal to adult nonfiction readers in the political science segment, the highest earner within Publisher Weekly’s History/Law/Political Science category, which saw 9.3 million unit sales in the first six months of 2017 — a 25 percent increase over the same six months in 2016! It makes great business sense to email this Paul fellow at 1001chicago@gmail.com!”

And if not, hey, at least you’re getting a fun read today.


Leaning from her mother’s arms, the little girl with the pink dress and Hello Kitty backpack reached out to touch the plaque beneath the monster.

It was the quiet time at the Field Museum of Natural History, the first few minutes after the 9 a.m. opening on a gray, murky Sunday. The great marble hall echoed tinny with each sound the early arrivers tried to muffle, each squeak of a sneaker or apologetic cough shivering among totem poles and taxidermied elephants. In blue patterned kurta tunic with long white linen scarf tumbling toward the ground, the mother was more traditionally garbed than her Kitty-hauling daughter. She helped her little girl — either a smart 2-year-old or a small 3 — trace the logo, guiding a tiny brown finger along the top three letters on the plaque. The girl squealed when she recognized the shape of the silhouette running across the letters.

“Dinosaur!” the little girl called.

“Sue!” her mother corrected.

Above the women leered a 65-million-year-old fossilized beast. Teeth like the Chinese daggers on exhibit a floor above, 10 tons of bone, rock, and death grinned at the mother and daughter in the near-empty hall.

She is Sue, the largest, best-preserved, and most complete pile of dirt ever discovered.


I call Sue dirt because she’s legally dirt. The 90-percent complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil has been declared by a court of law in U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota and affirmed on appeal by the Eighth Circuit to be land. Not a creature nor the remains of a creature. By court order, Sue is real estate.

Deeming the dinosaur property was a way to moot a previous sale of Sue for $5,000 to the Black Hills Institute, a for-profit fossil-hunting operation out of the small town of Hill City, South Dakota. The BHI found the bones in 1990 on a parcel of land physically within the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation boundaries but held in trust for rancher and tribal member Maurice Williams by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s a complicated but common legal status in the area, a holdover from the days the U.S. government believed Native Americans weren’t intelligent enough to manage real estate. Any sale of land held in trust had to be approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior. So a judge called Sue land, ruling in 1993 that the fossilization process turns animal into earth. This made the $5,000 handshake agreement between Williams and BHI President Peter Larson a real estate deal, one Interior was never consulted on. The sale was invalid. Williams, whose widow later told Indian Country Today newspaper knew about the trust status the whole time, could find more profitable buyers, ones who would pay millions for a T. rex rather than writing “Therapod Sue” — an accurate description of the find but one that wouldn’t tip the fossil hunters’ hand — on the memo line of a check for the cost of an OK used car.

Sue’s status as dirt was the crux of a massive, yearslong legal battle that involved western land trusts, tribal law, the Antiquities Act, and a disagreement between cowboys over whether a handshake meant the right to dig or ownership of the fossil itself. After 35 FBI agents, 20 National Guardsmen, and an ambitious acting U.S. attorney witnesses said showed up already in makeup for the TV crews raided the small Black Hills museum in 1992, the government held Sue in lockup for three years while the courts decided her fate. The seizure kicked off a period of hyperbolic government attention on the BHI’s business practices, which culminated in a two-year prison sentence for Peter Larson on misdemeanor charges the statutes say deserve a maximum of six months.

After a six-and-a-half-minute bidding war in 1997, the Field, financially backed by a consortium that included McDonald’s and the Walt Disney Company, paid $8.36 million for this particular heap of what’s legally soil — $7.6 million to Williams, the rest as Sotheby’s commission. The Field wanted the fossil. McDonald’s wanted the gravitas. Disney wanted a cast of Sue to put in Orlando’s DinoLand USA without the PR nightmare of outbidding a museum.

The letters the Hello Kitty girl traced with her finger were all capitalized. That’s by design. The Field calls this bit of South Dakota real estate SUE in all licensing, branding, and marketing, from the jokey “(SUE in all caps, please)” on the 41K-follower @SUEtheTrex Twitter account to the museum’s gift shops, where you can buy SUE-branded shirts, stuffed animals, mugs, cake pans, commemorative spoons, replica teeth, replica claws, books, DVDs, etched highball glasses, and two separate SUE-themed craft microbrews.

The museum filed for its first registered trademark for the SUE logo — all capital letters, the scampering dinosaur silhouette that made the little girl squeal — on Nov. 30, 1998. The Black Hills Institute’s trademark for the more-traditionally capitalized Sue™ was abandoned the next day.

Sue tells a lot of stories, not all of them about evolution.


The alleys and skyscrapers of downtown Chicago tell their stories too. If the Field is a museum dedicated to natural history, the city it’s located in can be seen as a museum of murkier topics — corruption, tricksy deals, breaches of the public trust. After all, what’s a museum if not a tightly packed collection of exhibits?

This book picks out 20 publicly accessible spots that tell how greed curated an American city. The smallest specimen in this particular collection is a four-inch camera recording us from a stoplight. The largest is an Illinois House of Representatives district that’s seven miles tall and, at its thinnest point, two city blocks wide. In between, there are skyscrapers, street corners, statues, a line of bronze in the sidewalk, a glass mosaic, a sham saloon, and other physical evidence of the forces that made this town.

Yes, this is literally a guidebook. Yes, lace up your hiking boots and walk these streets. I’ve mapped bike routes versus walking, scoped out restrooms, picked a safe, public path complete with GPS coordinates, directions to comfy seating, and pretty stuff to look at once you get there. You’ll read about education funding by a Chagall, about the city’s early days surrounded by Tiffany glass, about segregation by the cover of a Wilco album. There are alleys to cut across, buildings to cut through, and you can top off the day at a beer-and-shots bar with a secret. It should still be a fun read from your couch, but my hope is to get you into these crooked streets so you can see for yourself how The City That Works works.

If you’re not from Chicago, the point isn’t to gape and tsk, but to show these techniques in situ for when your lawmakers try the same. Learn gerrymandering from the best, then spot it when it shows up in your maps. See how the pros cull property tax revenue for pet projects. Understand the political value of the tree-climbing fish. Chicago is far from the only spot on the globe where corruption flourished. It, like Sue, is just a large, well-preserved, and famously complete specimen of its type.

In selecting these stories, I looked for individuals in power who manipulated, misused, or abused that power for personal or professional gain. Some of these stories involve broken laws, others don’t. All the stories involve gaming the system. A crony-appointed U.S. marshal who arrested a colleague so the police couldn’t, and resorted to gunplay when the ruse didn’t work — gaming the system. A mayor who put 16 relatives on the city payroll while alderman (“If you can’t help your family, who can you help?” his mother told the newspapers) — gaming the system. A multinational parking meter deal leaning on the disclosure laws of Qatar and Luxembourg to shield the people who quadrupled the fees — gaming the system.

But you can’t understand how the system was gamed without learning a bit about the system. These tales of trust-breachers are a back door to what’s essentially a book of civic and political history. A dancing auctioneer tells of the city’s birth. The marshal’s gunfight describes the evolution of the American secret ballot. Concrete corncobs highlight racial segregation and the men’s room of a faux-Irish pub broadcasts the decline of American watchdog journalism.

But more than politics, more than history, the purpose of this book is action. Just like I want to connect these airy civic notions to the stone and glass of Chicago street, I want to turn your concern into volunteerism and your care into dollars in the coffers of groups trying to cleanse and strengthen our city, state, and national character. The book’s conclusion lists a few of my favorite organizations and a few ways to help.

So lace up your boots or flick on your reading lamp. The tour is about to begin.

To keep reading, find me a publisher.

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