The White City

The 1893 Colombian Exposition, Chicago’s World’s Fair, is considered one of the great endeavors in both American and human history. It’s monumental architectural achievements, it’s incredible Ferris Wheel, it’s collection of technology, artisans and craft amazed the entire world. 27.5 million people witnessed this masterpiece of design, construction and mortal acheivement in only six months on Chicago’s lakeshore. Among them was young Tony Cermak, accompanied by his family and new fiancé, who gazed in doubtless pride among the throngs of awestuck masses. Cermak, whose life had been rooted in the mere labors of the Old World, was greatly inspired by the astonishing pinnacles of the New. ‘The White City’ stood before him, a marvel of his generation, and of his living time.

Hell's Half Acre

Not to be outdone by Architect Daniel Burnam and the magnificent spectacle of the Colombian Exposition, the old Chicago vanguard had made their own plans.  Legendary and infamous Aldermen of Chicago’s First Ward, John ‘Bathhouse’ Coughlin and Mike ‘Hinky Dink’ Kenna, devised and manifested a two-mile district of gambling, drink and prostitution unmatched in the history of urban vice.  It was appropriately named ‘The Levee.’  Just a short distance from the grounds of the World’s Fair, the Levee sported patches of Earth that were named ‘Satan’s Hollow’, ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ and ‘Dead Man’s Corner’, for their lewd and gravely precarious nature.  Many lived to regret their visit, as the hook of crime was on every corner.  If the ‘White City’ was indeed white, the ‘Levee’ was as black as night, with a heart to match.

A Pair For The Ages

To say the political landscape of Illinois of Tony Cermak’s day was corrupt is an understatement.  Len Small, elected Treasurer of the state in the early 1900’s, embezzled more than $1 million from state funds, created a ghost bank and sold loans out at 8%.  As Governor of Illinois in the 1920’s, Small ran a ‘pardon mill’ for the Mob that enabled gangsters, murderers, white slavers, and even cop killers to escape the law once convicted.  His partner in malfeasance and crime was the legendary Mayor of Chicago, ‘Big Bill’ Thompson.  In the chapters of American history, ‘Big Bill the Builder’ has few rivals in regard to unchecked graft, moronic buffoonery and barbaric crime.  Put into office as a young ex-athlete of family means, Thompson did what he was told to do, by Republican bosses, by crooked businessmen, and finally, by Al Capone himself.

Lips That Touch Liquor

The ‘Temperance’ movement may be as old as the country itself, but it was the evolution of the Industrial Age that gave groups such as the ‘Anti-Saloon League’ and the ‘Women’s Christian League’ real passions to demand change in the laws regarding liquor and it’s ‘availability’ in the U.S.  Liberated American men and their affairs with strong drink had for decades failed wives and mothers and destroyed lives and families.  The ‘Ladies of Temperance’ knew something dramatic must be done, and done now.  Their ideal was resolute: total absolution from alcohol and the end of liquor sold nationwide forever.  Prohibition.  The strength of the organization grew as did their numbers, and they achieved what some considered impossible, adding an amendment to the very U.S. Constitution that outlawed the sale and distribution of all alcohol in America.

Drys Vs. Wets

America now faced the fierce argument between liquor abolitionists (the ‘Drys’), and those who believed that a government could not legislate morality (the ‘Wets’).  It was a furious fight.  The Drys saw alcohol itself as the problem and their strength came from an aggressive, rural, and mostly Christian minority populace.  They used an impressive array of propaganda to sell their dramatic agenda, including war patriots and mothers defending their children against the evils of drink.  The Wets, lead with the resounding turpitude of Alderman Tony Cermak of Chicago, were adamant and unmovable not only on the precepts of ‘personal liberty’, but also believed that a countrywide Prohibition of alcohol would create an enormous underworld market and exact national contempt for a law passed without a voting majority.