"Vote early … and vote often."

There is no city in America that has been as maligned as Chicago when it comes to the city’s politics, politicians, corruption and questionable voting practices. Even Chicago’s most famous nickname of the "Windy City" comes from the hot air that is expelled by the city’s politicians, rather than for the speed of the local air currents. This is a city that is known for its back room politics, favors and bribes and its politicians have long been colorful characters.

Chicago’s mayors have always been men of importance. It’s true that the early pioneer mayors are barely remembered today but later on, as the mayors became more entrenched in the city’s political system, they became capable of causing riots and firing the entire police force. Some of them were controlled by gamblers, befriended by gangsters or manipulated behind the scenes by merchants and businessmen. Occasionally, good men would be elected to office and each would try valiantly to clean up the town. They would start reform movements to purge the city of corrupt officials, to close down saloons on Sunday and brothels on weeknights and to raid all of the gambling dens within spitting distance of City Hall. But in most cases, these good men were not supported by an honest administration and soon, the people of Chicago would be drawn to another man, who spoke louder and made more promises than the rest. For the most part it seems that the best Chicago mayors have been the ones who have more or less let the city run them, rather than to try and run the city, and have enforced the laws to the point that respectable citizens could walk the streets but never caused enough trouble to scare off the tourists and local folks who wanted to drink, gamble or carouse a little.

“Hinky Dink” Kenna & “Bathhouse” John Coughlin
(Chicago Historical Society)

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Some authors have said that Chicago is a religious town but I wouldn’t say it’s religious in any traditional way. The town has a moral façade that it maintains to disguise its sinful activities. The city loves the money that its reputation for being a bloody city that is tied to gangsters and ghosts brings in -- but the "official" stance on the subject rejects this image. Many of the mayors and politicians of the city have epitomized this attitude. They made deals with crooks and gangsters, while issuing self righteous statements about how awful crime was.

Chicago had a number of colorful mayors who managed to stretch the laws to their limits (and sometimes beyond) over the years, from a bar brawler, drunk and friend to gangsters named Fred Busse (who often told newspaper reporters who asked questions that he didn’t like to “go to hell”) to William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, who reigned over Chicago during the days of the Prohibition gangsters. Al Capone was one of the largest contributors to Thompson’s mayoral campaign and at his headquarters in the Lexington Hotel, Capone sat under framed portraits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln -- and Big Bill Thompson.

But it has never been the mayors of Chicago who have had the most power in the city. You see, the real control over politics in the city of Chicago is held by those who control the jobs. He who controls the jobs has the loyalty of the people and the votes on election day. It’s no wonder that such men are so well remembered in the city today -- for better or for worse.

Chicago’s South Side Levee District took shape during the Columbian Exposition in 1893, when thousands of people from all over the world descended on the city. Many believe that the growth of a vice district on the south side may have been what spurred Potter Palmer to flee the region and to build his castle on North Lake Shore Drive, far from the illicit goings-on. And he was not the only one of the wealthy to flee either. Prairie Avenue soon fell into gradual ruin as the Levee began to grow and prosper in the early 1900’s.

Visitors to the district could partake of just about every form of vice imaginable from drinks to women and it became a seedbed of crime that would go on to spawn men like Al Capone, Johnny Torrio and the generations that followed them and who became the modern Chicago "outfit". Three vice rings formed the criminal organization that ruled the Levee and which provided the areas various forms of "entertainment".

James Colosimo, an old-world Italian brothel keeper, controlled the street sweeper’s union and was linked to the legendary Black Hand. After striking it rich selling the services of young women in two of his bordellos (one of which was named in honor of his wife!), he opened a famous café on South Wabash Avenue that attracted both society patrons and gangsters to its doors. Italian opera stars often dropped in to sample Colosimo’s famous pasta, and to rub shoulders with dangerous Levee characters, as well. The café was closed only twice during Prohibition and remained in business long after the proprietor was dead. Colosimo himself was shot to death inside of the vestibule of the restaurant on May 11, 1920 and his garish funeral procession included three judges and nine aldermen as pallbearers. The café was taken over by Mike "The Greek" Potson, a former Indiana saloon keeper. He kept the restaurant going but after Colosimo was killed, he reportedly gained a new business partner -- Al Capone.

Another Levee vice ring was controlled by Maurice Van Bever and his wife Julia, who operated an interstate white slavery ring that extended from St. Louis to Chicago. The ring inspired the passage of the Mann Act in 1910. The act was introduced by Representative James Robert Mann of Illinois and it made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. It was believed that operators in the Levee had imported more than 20,000 young women into the United States to work in their brothels.

The third vice ring was operated by Charley Maibum, who ran a "pay by the hour" hotel where the local streetwalkers could take their clients for a quick rendezvous.

In addition to these, there were scores of independent operators in the district. The Levee arcade featured a number of "dollar a girl" joints, where the women provided services on a volume basis. Many of these unfortunate young ladies ended up on the Levee thanks to the smooth charm of oily con men, who lured them away from small-town life with promises of romance and marriage in the big city. Instead of a love and excitement, they ended up robbed, beaten and "broken in" at the hellish dives of the Levee. In those days, most could see the need for organized prostitution but saw the methods used to induce women to become prostitutes as far more unwholesome. In Chicago (and in every other major city of the day), vice operators had no problem paying off police officers and politicians for permission to run houses of prostitution. However, the officials were less tolerant of what was called the "procuring" of the girls, although the right amount of money could always get them to look the other way. Chicago’s vice trade required so many women that procurers operated here with or without approval and the city became a supply point for other cities in the Midwest.

But not all of the bordellos in this part of town were cheap dives that were filled with "white slavery" victims and broken down old whores. Located at 2131 was the famous Everleigh Club, believed to be the most garish and opulent bordello in the city. Ada and Minna Everleigh recruited refined and cultured young women and charged their wealthy patrons as much as $500 a night for their entertainment. The Everleigh opened in 1900 and hired chefs, porters and servants to provide background staffing for the six parlors and 50 bedrooms located on the premises. The rooms were amazingly furnished with tapestries, oriental rugs, impressionist paintings and fine furnishings and there was even a huge library for the education of the young women who worked there. There was a waterfall in one room and orchestras often appeared in the drawing rooms. Upstairs, the Gold Room featured gold-rimmed fish bowls, a miniature gold piano and gold spittoons. The basement was arranged to duplicate the sleeping arrangements of Pullman cars.

The Everleigh circulated brochures all over the Midwest and the bordello attracted a famous, and infamous, trade. The sisters paid an extravagant sum for police protection and this may have been the reason why Captain Patrick J. Harding ignored a direct order from Mayor Carter Harrison II to shut the place down. It did get padlocked in 1911 however and the sisters, who had amassed a personal fortune in jewelry, stocks and bonds, moved on to the city’s west side. The ladies were driven out by their indignant neighbors though and retired to private life in New York. The club was demolished in 1933 to make room for the Hilliard Homes, a public housing project.

The rest of the South Side Levee only lasted a year longer than the Everleigh Club. A massive civil welfare parade that was organized on September 29, 1912 spurred grand jury indictments and complaints to be filed against property owners in the district. This resulted in the end of "segregated vice" in Chicago but the Levee did not completely disappear. Many of the famous resorts from this area were bulldozed, as they stood in the way of an important east-west railroad corridor, but others remained and became the jazz clubs of the 1920’s. A number of deadly occurrences still plagued the district in the years to come but when Colosimo’s was finally closed in 1945 (Mike "The Greek" was convicted for income tax evasion) and demolished in 1957, an era in Chicago’s sorted history finally came to a close.

The point of this history lesson on the vice of the South Side Levee district is to explain who the real "bosses" behind the Levee were. Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, Chicago politicians, ran the notorious, gangster-infested First Ward for almost four decades, between 1897 and 1938. They made a legendary team, collecting graft and doling out favors in the area to those who paid the most. In 1911, when Mayor Harrison gave the word to Captain Patrick J. Harding to order his divisional inspector John Wheeler to close down the Everleigh Club, the inspector did nothing until he received the okay from aldermen Kenna and Coughlin.

Coughlin was known as "Bathhouse" because he had once been a masseur in a Turkish bath and he was a large, poetry-spouting buffoon. He was known for being outgoing and good-hearted and a bizarre dresser, sporting garishly colored waistcoats. His poetry often appeared in Chicago newspapers and in his public statements, many mistook him for being simple-minded. Mayor Harrison once asked his partner, Kenna, if Bathhouse was crazy or taken with drugs. Kenna replied that he was neither. "To tell you the god’s truth, Mayor, they ain’t found a name for it yet."

Kenna was Coughlin’s mirror opposite. He was small, glum and quietly dressed and was known for being shrewd and close-mouthed. At Kenna’s Workingman’s Exchange on Clark Street, patrons were served what was referred to as the "Largest and Coolest Schooner of Beer in the City" and the best free lunch around too. There were no orchestras here, no women, no music and no selling to minors. Here, for more than 20 years, the bums, the homeless and the jobless of the First Ward ate and drank for a nickel. Kenna also found jobs for the down and out and often rescued them from trouble with the police.

But he also told them how to vote -- in more than 40 years, he never lost an election or primary. He and Bathhouse created this astonishing record by marshaling the ward’s party workers on election day to get votes from railroad hands, tramps, thieves and any other warm bodies that were available. They were taken to a polling place and were given already marked ballots that were deposited in a box. When they returned with the unmarked ballots (taken from the polling place), they could turn them in for a fee of 50 cents or a dollar. Those ballots were then marked and used at another polling place, where the whole scheme was repeated.

The two men made an unlikely pair but were a highly effective and increasingly wealthy duo. In addition to the other services they offered, such as guaranteed voting in the First Ward, they also provided protection for a variety of illicit enterprises. They exacted regular and weekly tributes that ranged from $25 per week from the small houses and as much as $100 from the larger ones. They also received an additional fee if drinks were sold or gambling occurred there. They also offered fees for legal work as well, such as stopping indictments for charges of grand larceny, pandering, theft or kidnapping. These fees could range as high as $500 to $2,000.

They were able to provide such services thanks to the fact that Coughlin and Kenna had men who were beholden to them in every city, county, state and federal office in the city. They controlled the jobs of city workers, including inspectors and the police, and were also, as aldermen, in a position to grant favors to respectable businessmen in Chicago. They could usually count on a routine take of between $15,000 and $30,000 per year, over and above the stipend of $3 per council meeting that they received from the city. Special votes that were purchased bought them in anywhere from $8,000 to $100,000 each, depending on the importance of the matter. The two men went carefully about their business filling the requests that the financiers of Chicago were willing to pay for, such as zoning variances, permits, tax deductions, licenses and other amenities.

However, things didn’t always go smoothly and the two men did manage to get attention brought to them, both personally and professionally. For instance, one of Bathhouse’s pet projects was the construction of a zoo on land that he owned in Colorado Springs in 1902. The zoo featured a refugee elephant from the Lincoln Park Zoo who had managed to lose part of her trunk in a trap door. Princess Alice, as she was called, was purchased by Coughlin and shipped to Colorado, where she caught a severe cold in the winter of 1906. Coughlin suggested that she be given whiskey, which cured his own ailments, and so keepers gave the elephant an entire quart, which quickly cured her cold. After that, Princess Alice acquired a serious taste for the hard stuff and began searching the zoo looking for visitors with flasks. She would beg for drinks from them and when whiskey was given to her, she would sip it daintily and then go off somewhere and pass out.

As mentioned, Bathhouse was also noted for his horrible poetry. Epics that he penned included titles like "She Sleeps by the Drainage Canal", "Ode to a Bathtub", "Why Did They Build the Lovely Lake So Close to the Horrible Shore", "They’re Tearing Up Clark Street Again" and others. It was later revealed though that John Kelley, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was the actual author of many of Coughlin’s poems, which he read regularly at city council meetings. But only Coughlin would have taken credit for a terrible song that he wrote called "Dear Midnight of Love", which was performed for the first and last time at the Auditorium Theater in October 1899.

Bad poetry aside though, it was not weak prose that brought Coughlin and Kenna to the attention of the public and to every reform organization in Chicago from 1897 onward. It was constantly, and justifiably, assumed that the two of them were corrupt, although nothing was ever proven against them. Their most famous exploit was a party and it was one that was such an outstanding example of public debauchery that it was eventually shut down.

The First Ward Ball, which they organized, was referred to as an "annual underworld orgy". It was required that every prostitute, pimp, pickpocket and thief had to buy at least one ticket, while the owners of brothels and saloons had to purchase large blocks of them. The madams usually had their own boxes, where they could rub shoulders with city officials and politicians. The ball continued a tradition that started around 1880, when there was a charity party to honor Lame Jimmy, a pianist who worked for the renowned madam, Carrie Watson. They continued on until 1895, when a drunken detective shot another police officer at the party.

After the end of the charity gatherings, Coughlin and Kenna took responsibility for throwing the annual affair. It grew larger every year until the two aldermen were making as much as $50,000 from the party. They held the ball at the Chicago Coliseum and after one spectacle; the Tribune wrote that "if a great disaster had befallen the Coliseum last night, there would not have been a second story worker, a dip or pug ugly, porch climber, dope fiend or scarlet woman remaining in Chicago."

The 1907 First Ward Ball was perhaps the most widely reported and for this reason, seemed to raise the most ire among the various reform movements in the city. By the time, the ball opened that year, there were 15,000 people jammed into the Coliseum. One newspaper reported that there were so many drunks inside that when one would pass out, they could not even fall to the floor. In addition, women who fainted were passed over the heads of the crowd to the exits. As the event opened, a procession of Levee prostitutes marched into the building, led by Bathhouse John, with a lavender cravat and a red sash across his chest. Authors Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan described the parade: "On they came, madams, strumpets, airily clad jockeys, harlequins, Diana’s, page boys, female impersonators, tramps, pan handlers, card sharps, mountebanks, pimps, owners of dives and resorts, young bloods and ‘older men careless of their reputations’…"

At this point, the party really got started as women draped themselves over railings and ordered men to pour champagne down their throats. "The girls in peekaboo waists, slit skirts, bathing suits and jockey costumes relaxed and tripped to the floor where they danced wildly and drunkenly … drunken men sought to undress young women and met with few objections …" This seems to also be the first mention of Chicago’s "drag queens" of the era too and reformers later described the antics of these men in women’s costumes as "unbelievably appalling and nauseating."

Even though there had been 100 policemen detailed to the party, there were only eight arrests and one conviction -- that of Bernard Dooley, who was fined for entering the party without paying! Hinky Dink Kenna later called the party a "lallapalooza" and added that "Chicago ain’t no sissy town!"

The Chicago Coliseum - Home of the First Ward Ball for years (Chicago Historical Society)

Reform elements had attempted every year to stop the ball from taking place but had never succeeded. After the 1907 affair though, they were even more determined. In 1908, the rector, warden and vestry of the Grace Episcopal Church asked the Superior Court for an injunction against the event but the court simply stated that the affair was not within its jurisdiction. On December 13, just two days before the ball was to be held, a bomb exploded in the Coliseum, wrecking a two-story building that was used as a warehouse and breaking windows as far as two blocks away. The police who investigated said that it had been the work of "fanatical reformers" and the ball was given as scheduled. In fact, Bathhouse John told reporters that it was the "nicest Derby we ever had."

Reverend Melbourne P. Boynton of the Lexington Avenue Baptist Church, who apparently attended, said that it was "unspeakably low, vulgar and immoral". Public opinion sided with the minister and the 1908 First Ward Ball was the last. When Coughlin announced plans for the event in 1909, such a storm of opposition arose that Mayor Fred Busse refused to issue a liquor license. On December 13, Coughlin and Kenna gave a concert in the Coliseum but less than 3,000 people attended and police were on hand to make sure that no liquor was served and that no one got out of hand. It was the dullest affair that the Levee had ever seen and there has been no attempt to hold the First Ward Ball since.

The end came for Chicago’s two most colorful aldermen not with a bang, but with a sad whisper. Bathhouse John Coughlin died on November 8, 1938, an old and fading politician and a veteran of 46 years on the city council. After all of the money that had had made over the years, he died more than $50,000 in debt, thanks to bad gambling debts.

Hinky Dink took care of his old friend’s funeral arrangements but there were few people around to do the same thing for Kenna when he passed on in 1946. After more than 50 years as boss of the First Ward, there were only three cars with flowers at the graveside and the mayor didn’t even attend. Unlike Coughlin though, Hinky Dink died a millionaire, leaving behind piles of cash (mostly in $1000 bills), two pints of vintage 1917 bourbon, 11 suits of woolen long underwear and a 1930 Pierce Arrow Limousine. After Coughlin’s death though, he rarely ever left his suite at the Blackstone Hotel and toward the end, he never left it all. He died mostly forgotten and if not for the blatant corruption that reigned during his tenure as an alderman, and the debauchery of the First Ward Ball, it’s likely he would not be remembered at all.

© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.