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Sat May 12, 2012
Author Interviews

The 12 Days Of Disaster That Made Modern Chicago

Originally published on Sat May 12, 2012 6:05 pm

In 1919, Chicago was called the "youngest great city in the world." World War I had just come to a close, troops were coming home, industry was booming and crime was down. Chicago's mayor at the time, William Hale Thompson — known as Big Bill — had just been re-elected and was spearheading an ambitious urban improvement program.

But in mid-July of 1919, just about everything that could go wrong in Chicago did. Among the headlines were a deadly dirigible crash, a bizarre kidnapping, race riots and a major public transit strike.

This is the setting for Gary Krist's new book, City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago.

A Blimp-Sized Disaster

By the summer of 1919, Chicago's economy was winding down from its wartime peak.

Soldiers were returning from Europe, looking for jobs that had been filled in large part by African-Americans who were moving north in what is now called the Great Migration.

"So there was intense competition for jobs, for social services and especially for housing," Krist tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "Really, all of these tensions were just coming to a head."

The series of strange events began on Monday, July 21, when a Goodyear blimp was making an exhibition flight over the city. It mysteriously caught fire and crashed in the downtown loop. It came through the skylight of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank and ended up killing 13 people inside. Krist says it set off a wave of hysteria.

Krist says people wondered, "If you're not safe working in the middle of a bank, where are you safe?"

Race Riots

Only six days after the dirigible crash, five black boys were rafting along the lakefront when they drifted toward a whites-only beach. A fight broke out and one of the boys drowned after being hit in the head with a rock.

Krist says that's when the race riots took a turn for the worse.

"It really just spiraled into a five-day orgy of violence that was really revolting in many ways," he says. "The police seemed incapable of doing anything about it. There were rumors that some of the white rioters were politically protected and so the police weren't touching them."

Krist points out that these were the first race riots in which African-Americans aggressively fought back, and he says that was seen as a positive by many community leaders.

"There was this sense among the black community that black soldiers had performed in a stellar fashion in the war in Europe and they had come back and they were ready to claim their rights as American citizens. And what do they get? They get race riots and abuse," Krist says.

The violence on the streets got so bad that Mayor Thompson had to call in the National Guard.

"Within hours there were thousands of troopers heading into the streets with howitzers and rifles and bayonets — and they met a lot of resistance. A lot of the athletic clubs put up a fight, but really within 24 hours they had more or less restored order," Krist says.

The Legacy

In the period of 12 days Krist writes about, 38 people in Chicago died, more than 500 were injured, and thousands were left homeless, many as a result of fires that destroyed their homes.

Each disaster had a lasting impact on the people living in Chicago, but Krist says the race riots in particular affected the city's future.

"It really had the effect of hardening the color line that had just really been developing in the city over the previous few years," he says. "It really left a legacy of residential segregation in Chicago that lasted for decades and some would say the legacy is still there."

Krist says the crisis of those 12 days also had a positive legacy: It helped move Chicago's redevelopment plan forward.

"One of the effects of the crisis was, paradoxically, that Mayor Thompson came out stronger than ever," Krist says. "Initially he took a lot of guff for his performance and particularly the delay in calling the militia, but ultimately because the aftermath of the riot investigations were totally botched ... they created a lot of outrage in the city that Thompson was able to use to gather support."

Thompson used his newfound power to push through major construction plans.

"I think a lot more of the Chicago plan did get finished and so a lot of the architectural gems that make Chicago such a showpiece today, you know, the Navy Pier, the Magnificent Mile, the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the park system — all of these were kind of a legacy of this mayor who is a joke in some circles."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. In 1919, Chicago was called the youngest great city in the world. The First World War had just ended, the troops were coming home, industry was booming and crime in that city was way down. And yet right in the thick of it, disaster - 12 days that shook that city right at the height of the summer of 1919.

Gary Krist writes about it in his new book. It's called "City of Scoundrels." And at the time, Chicago's mayor, William Hale Thompson - he was known as Big Bill Thompson - had just been re-elected, and he was pushing an ambitious infrastructure project that would reshape the city forever.

GARY KRIST: He was this extremely colorful, extravagantly corrupt blowhard who always wore this cowboy hat. And he liked to think of himself as the people's David defending the common Chicago and against the Goliaths of wealth and privilege. But he really was a big champion of the Chicago planned projects, you know, which allowed for a lot of kickbacks and patronage, so it was understandable. But he called himself Big Bill the Builder, and he really embraced this project.

RAZ: Widely regarded as the worst mayor in Chicago's history. And somebody, by the way, reading the book who reminded of another Illinois politician who will not be named.

KRIST: Right. Right. It's very much into that tradition.

RAZ: You get to the summer. Anybody who's been in Chicago during the summer knows it is a hot place. We're talking about 1919, so no air conditioning.

KRIST: It was a hot July. The soldiers were returning from Europe and...

RAZ: Looking for jobs.

KRIST: ...a lot of the jobs had been taken by the influx of African-American workers...

RAZ: This I - we're in the middle of The Great Migration.

KRIST: We're in the middle of The Great - really, at the beginning of The Great Migration. They had come up to fill these jobs during the full-time labor shortage, and so they're all converging on the city just when the economy was winding down from its wartime peak. So there was really intense competition for jobs, for social services, and especially for housing. All of these tensions were just coming to a head in July of 1919 when the city was hit by this bizarre series of mishaps.

RAZ: It begins shortly before 5 p.m. on Monday, July 21, 1919. What happens that day?

KRIST: A Goodyear Blimp was making an exhibition flight over the city. It mysteriously caught fire and crashed in the downtown loop. It came through the skylight right into the central courtyard of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, and it ended up killing a number of people inside. And...

RAZ: Thirteen people, you write.

KRIST: Thirteen people. And it sort of set off a wave of hysteria in the city. People just thought if you're not safe working in the middle of a bank, where are you safe?

RAZ: So that happens, and it kind of dominos into a series of unrelated by horrendous events that take place over the next 12 days. The next day, a couple from another part of Chicago arrive to a police station in the Gold Coast area - John Wilkinson and his wife. They're immigrants from Scotland. Their six-year-old daughter is missing.

KRIST: Yeah. She was on the street coming home from the park with her friends and said goodbye, and that was the last anybody ever saw of her. And for days, the whole city was consumed with the mystery of this disappearance. She was a very popular little girl. And when it turned out that it was a seemingly innocuous neighbor who was the culprit and that he had actually kidnapped and killed her and then buried her body in his own basement, that sort of set off another wave of hysteria about whether ones friends and neighbors could be trusted.

RAZ: Hmm. Headlines blared across the newspapers, right?

KRIST: Oh, yeah. It was making the biggest headlines during the actual period.

RAZ: The next day, July 27, 1919, the most significant series of events breaks out in Chicago. Some young African-American boys are rafting along the lakefront. They drift toward a whites-only beach accidentally. Stones are thrown at them, shots are fired, one of the boys is hit in the head and drowns, and thus begins a series of race riots - white mobs ransacking black neighborhoods in Chicago for days.

KRIST: Right. It really just spiraled into a five-day orgy of violence that was really revolting in many ways. The police seemed incapable of doing anything about it. There were rumors that some of the white rioters were politically protected and so the police weren't touching them. This was considered one of the first race riots in history where blacks really aggressively fought back. And this was seen as a positive by many black leaders.

RAZ: Talk about that resistance for a moment.

KRIST: Well, there was this sense among the black community that black soldiers had performed in a stellar fashion in the war in Europe, and they had come back, and they were ready to claim their rights as American citizens. And what do they get? They get race riots and abuse. So there was this rising - they called it the new Negro sensibility - this rising sense of pride and sense of entitlement to respect and to the basic rights that everyone else in the country was guaranteed. So that created a volatile background to the violence on the street.

RAZ: It got to the point where Mayor Thompson, Big Bill Thompson, had to call in the National Guard.

KRIST: Yes. He was reluctant to do this, but finally, things got so bad that he blinked first, and he said, I - even though I don't like going to the governor, I will write out this written request. And within hours, there were thousands of troopers heading into the streets with howitzers and rifles and bayonets. And they met a lot of resistance, but really, within 24 hours, they had more or less restored order.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Gary Krist. He's the author of a new book. It's called "City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago." Gary, this period of 12 days also claimed many lives. How many people died, by the way?

KRIST: Thirty-eight people died. There were over 500 injured and thousands were left homeless because there were a lot of fires at the end.

RAZ: What kind of impact did this have on the history of racial politics in Chicago which has been a difficult one, to say the least?

KRIST: Yeah. Certainly, it did change race relations in the city for years to come. There was, understandably, a lot of bitterness after the riot. And it really had the effect of hardening the color line that had just really been developing in the city over the previous few years. So it really left a legacy of residential segregation in Chicago that lasted for decades. And some would say the legacy is still there.,

RAZ: What about the plan to redevelop Chicago? Whatever happened to it?

KRIST: Interestingly enough, one of the effects of the crisis was Mayor Thompson came out stronger than ever. And since he was such a big champion of the Chicago plan, I think a lot more of the Chicago plan did get finished. And so a lot of the architectural gems that make Chicago such a showpiece today - you know, the Navy Pier, the Magnificent Mile, the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the park system - all of these were kind of a legacy of this mayor who is a joke in some circles.

RAZ: That's writer Gary Krist. His new book is called "City of Scoundrels." It's about the 12 days of disaster that gave birth to modern Chicago. The book is now out. Gary, thank you so much for coming in.

KRIST: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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