Little Girl Living in Big City Corruption

June 10, 2010

Striking garment workers scuffling with policemen, 1915. Chicago Daily News negatives collection DN-0065587. Permission requested and granted from Chicago Historical Society, order #16922.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich sure is a big news item these days. I happened to be researching Chicago corruption and his name pops up everywhere. Interestingly, for every story on Blagojevich’s alleged dealmaking, bribery and all-around racketeering, there’s a follow up on Chicago’s synonomous past. It seems Blagojevich and the Windy City’s epic cronies may have a few things in common.

“There is a culture of corrupt and history of corruption in Chicago that dates back to 1856 when county commissioners and aldermen were in (scheme) crooked scheme to paint city hall,” says Dick Simpson, Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in this recent Time magazine article.

To visualize this culture, you’ve got to know a little of Chicago’s history. And a fascinating history it is.

Since its beginnings in 1833, Chicago has been a city of immigrants. This was particularly true after its first railways, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1838. These two systems established the city as a transportation hub between the east and the west.

According to author Edward M. Burke, in a Pritzker Military Library podcast interview, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world in the 19th century. By 1893, when it hosted the Chicago World’s Fair, one million people claimed it as their home.

“Chicago was an immigrant city,” says Burke. “Many of the people came from nations where they were oppressed. They came here and suddenly had this new experience, new freedoms they enjoyed…in some instances it would get out of hand.”

Of that population, Germans comprised the largest ethnic group. The Irish came in a close second. And here’s were much of Chicago’s political story began. It was the Germans and Irish in 1855, who brought on the Lager Beer Riot when they objected to increased saloon licensing fees. And it was the Germans and Irish (particularly the Irish), who dominated politics, the police and the firemen forces. (1)

Fast forward to 1909, the year a little girl named Ruth was born.

Ruth Hooge, my grandmother, was born in Chicago at a time when the American economy wavered between the promise of new businesses and exciting job opportunities, to the panic of bank runs, labor strikes and unemployment. In just 20 years, Chicago’s population had doubled, bringing its population to two million people. And it was “politics as usual” as “mayoral appointments ensured that the Police Department and other civic agencies would be controlled by partisan commissions,” according to the book To Serve and Collect, by Richard C. Lindberg. (2)

Wouldn’t you think life went on for most Chicagoans in spite of these political shenanigans? After all, crime and corruption happen everywhere, yet we still manage to play happily as children, grow up to be adults, and possibly raise families of our own.

For Ruth, however, life may not have been the same as most little girls’. Ruth’s father was a policeman, and in Chicago, being a policeman was not an easy job.

Author Richard Lindberg writes about it in his book:

“A policeman’s lot was never a happy one. The hours were long, and in the early years of the twentieth century, payless paydays were all too common because of repeated fiscal crises in city government. Disease, despair, and the prospects of an early death awaited the police officer. In addition, he had to be resourceful and keep his wits about him, because his own livelihood often depended not on how well he performed his duties, but how well he pleased his masters.” (3)

“To continue his employment on the force, the police officer was openly called upon to perform political work or to sell tickets to fund-raising events that lined the coffers of the ward organizations. The policeman, who wanted to do his duty in a forthright manner, quickly realized the perils involved when he attempted to arrest gamblers and brothel keepers who had ‘clout’. ” (4)

I once asked my grandmother about her father. She said she didn’t remember much about him.

Unlike most little girls in Chicago, Ruth’s father died when she was eight.

1. Richard Lindberg (1991). To Serve and Collect: Chicago Politics and Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal. Praeger Publishers 1991.
2. Richard Lindberg (1991). To Serve and Collect: Chicago Politics and Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal. Praeger Publishers 1991. pg. 53.
3. Richard Lindberg (1991). To Serve and Collect: Chicago Politics and Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal. Praeger Publishers 1991.pg. xiii.
4. Richard Lindberg (1991). To Serve and Collect: Chicago Politics and Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal. Praeger Publishers 1991. pg. xiv.

More good reading:

End of Watch: Chicago Police Killed in the Line of Duty 1853–2006. By Edward M. Burke, Edward and Thomas J. O’Gorman (2006). Chicago’s Neighborhoods, Inc.

City of the Century, The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, by Donald L. Miller (1997) Simon & Schuster.

Advertisements

One Response to “Little Girl Living in Big City Corruption”

  1. Terri Says:

    Germans too? And all this time I thought it was just the Irish! Nicely written.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: