If we've learned anything in recent years, it's how quickly the social fabric can be torn apart. The levees break, the markets plunge, a man sets himself aflame on a Tunisian street and suddenly everything changes. In his fast-paced new book, “City of Scoundrels,” Gary Krist traces Chicago's great unraveling in the summer of 1919. The title refers to his central character, William Hale Thompson, who that spring had been elected to his second term as mayor.
Big Bill, as everyone called him, is generally regarded as the worst mayor Chicago ever had. But Krist sees him as something of a charming rogue, undoubtedly corrupt and more than a little erratic, but also fiercely dedicated to the city's transformation.
At the heart of his vision was the 1909 Burnham Plan, which called for a raft of civic improvements that would turn Chicago into the "Paris on the Prairie." But planning wasn't enough, not for Big Bill. "I want to make Chicago a great city," he proclaimed the day he was re-elected. "I want to build her a lakefront, to finish widening streets and building bridges. I love this city! I love Chicago with all my heart!"
Then the crisis hit.
It started shortly before 5 p.m. on Monday, July 21, 1919, Krist writes, when a blimp, the Wingfoot Express, exploded while on a test-run 1,200 feet above the Loop. Down came a cascade of burning debris, straight through the skylight of the Illinois Trust Building, into an office filled with clerks and typists. Thirteen people were killed, four aboard the blimp, nine sitting at their desks. Thus began "an appalling series of trials that would push the entire city to the edge of civic disintegration," Krist he argues.
Krist focuses on four subsequent events over 12 horrific days. The day after the Wingfoot disaster, authorities launched a criminal investigation to determine who was responsible for letting the blimp test its airworthiness directly over the nation's second largest city. That evening, John Wilkinson and his wife came to the Chicago Avenue police station on the North Side to report that their 6-year-old daughter, Janet, had disappeared. Suspicion quickly fell on a 30-something neighbor who'd shown troubling interest in the girl. But despite intense interrogation, the neighbor insisted he had no idea what had happened to Janet. For a week, the two investigations dominated the city's newspapers, their front pages filled with every lurid detail.
Just as these stories were coming to their conclusions, a white man stoned to death a black boy who had gone swimming off the whites-only 29th Street beach. News of the murder rocketed through nearby neighborhoods, already racially divided. By nightfall, the area had been turned into a racial battleground, as whites rampaged along the borders of the Black Belt, assaulting any African-American they could find. The following day, the violence spread into the Black Belt and over to the stockyards, where there were plenty of African-American workers to victimize. The day after that, with the death toll at 19, the rioting moved into the Loop.
The rioting intersected with the fourth upheaval. For weeks, Chicago's transit workers had been telling Thompson they would walk off the job unless the city raised their wages. On July 29, they made good on their threat. Without the "L" in operation, downtown gridlocked.
Through the snarl of traffic, gangs of whites swirled, surging into hotels and restaurants in search of black men, chasing down those they could find, killing two on the streets. Chicago "is weak and helpless before the mob," civil rights activist Ida Wells-Barnett wrote that day. "Notwithstanding our boasted democracy, lynch law is king."
Big Bill let his beloved city bleed for another day before asking the governor to send in the state militia. That's when the violence finally abated. Thirty-eight Chicagoans were killed.
Krist handles these overlapping events with remarkable skill, weaving what in less-talented hands could have been a tangle of incidents and anecdotes into a driving narrative. At its best, "City of Scoundrels" is utterly absorbing. In the end, though, it seems slightly less than the sum of its parts. The problem lies with the strands of the story Krist tells. Though certainly compelling, three of the four events he details weren't particularly significant except to those directly involved: the Wingfoot explosion was a freak accident; the Wilkerson kidnapping a classic piece of urban noir; the transit strike, which lasted all of three days, a temporary inconvenience.
Only the race riot really marked those July days as one of Chicago's great trials, a moment when the social fabric ripped apart, a time when everything changed. It wasn't the bloodshed alone, as horrific as it was. With the riot, the color line that had been under construction in Chicago for more than a decade hardened into hyper-segregation; neighborhoods divided, black and white, separate and unequal.
But Krist devotes no more than a paragraph to that storyline before he swings back to Big Bill cutting the ribbon on the brand-new Michigan Avenue Bridge in May 1920, his grand vision for Chicago now cast in concrete and steel. With that celebratory scene, Krist inadvertently turns the blood-soaked week of the previous year into nothing more than a summer storm flashing across the city, then passing on.
Kevin Boyle teaches American history at Ohio State University. His book, "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age," received the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for nonfiction.
"City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago"
By Gary Krist
Crown Publishers, 368 pages, $26.00