What I’m Reading: City of Scoundrels

City of Scoundrels by Gary Krist is historical non-fiction covering the story of a particularly horrific week-and-a-half in the history of Chicago, specifically, July 21st to July 31st 1919.  The experimental flight of an airship kicked the eleven days off when it caught fire above the Loop and crashed through the atrium of a bank building, killing airship riders and bank employees alike.  The next day, a six-year old girl was kidnapped, the prime suspect a pedophile living next door, kicking off a media feeding frenzy. An incident on the border between a white beach and black beach a couple days later sparked one of the worst race riots in American history, exacerbated by a transit strike that forced thousands of city workers onto the dangerous streets and nearly shut the city down.

It’s a dramatic period to cover, and Krist does a good job of giving each of the events its due, but without crowding anything out.  He provides context and background, bringing readers up to speed on how and why each development occurred, and to what extent they were inter-related.  He also does an excellent job of bringing interesting little details to light, helped by his use not only of newspapers and official reports from the period, but also diaries from contemporary Chicago residents, particularly that of Emily Frankenstein, a nineteen-year-old with an interest in current events.

That Krist was able to assemble such a complete picture of the period is largely due to the existence of eight daily newspapers in Chicago at the time.  The different newspapers served Chicago’s left, right, and centrist readers, its labor sympathizers and big business, its blacks, Germans, and Poles, assuring that any major event, and lots of smaller ones, would receive coverage from several viewpoints.  Should an American city now experience such an eventful week, I wonder if historians decades from now will be able to research it as thoroughly.  That even major cities now rarely support more than two, and often only one, daily makes me doubt it.  The typical response to that would be that of course blogs and micro-newssites on the Web cover cities with a wealth of detail not possible in earlier times–but will these blogs and sites still be accessible in fifty, eighty, or a hundred years?

Rather less successful was Krist’s attempt to show that this sequence of events had far-reaching consequences in Chicago.  In fact, the whole point of the book is that this eleven-day period somehow forged modern Chicago, but I just don’t see it.  The airship disaster was a freak accident, the kidnapping of the six-year old was regrettable but not especially important (except to her family, of course!), and the transit strike was only one in a long line of labor unrest incidents in Chicago, not the first and far from the last.  The only one of the incidents that really had a long-lasting impact, from what I can tell, was the race riot.  Up until then, in Krist’s telling, Chicago had been relatively welcoming to blacks migrating from the South, but the riot seemed to have ignited a period of racial animosity that smoldered for decades.

In fact, I’d say the very facts Krist present show that Chicago went on pretty much as it always had, despite its hellish summer in 1919.  The same Republican-machine mayor, Big Bill Thompson, was re-elected that fall.  No important businesses began or failed, no social movements or major reforms had their seeds in the events.  Big Bill did manage to pass his Chicago Plan a few months later, a framework for vastly expanding and modernizing Chicago’s roads, bridges, parks, and civic institutions.  While the events in the book perhaps gave fresh impetus to the Chicago plan, it had been in the making for almost ten years and very likely would have passed in any case.

No, the real event of 1919 that impacted Chicago was the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution on 16 January, with entered force a year later.  This amendment, prohibiting alcohol, was the prime cause of the rise of organized crime in Chicago, which really defined the city in the 1920s.  Except for the race riot, the events related in City of Scoundrels, as fun and satisfying as it is to read, are little more than historical footnotes, notable only for their close temporal proximity.

If this sounds interesting to you, by all means read this book–you won’t be disappointed. I highly recommend it for the armchair historian.  But if you’re hoping to find out what really made the city tick in the 1920s, you should instead read Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, the definitive history of Prohibition, and one in which Chicago plays no small role.

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