CITY OF SCOUNDRELS
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Gary Krist offers a detailed look at the summer of 1919 in Chicago, which featured a dirigible crashing into a bank, a kidnapping-murder, a race riot, and a transit strike in his popular history City of Scoundrels. Although the book covers almost an entire year in Chicagoís history, its focus is on a twelve day period that began with the Wingfoot Air Express dirigible crashing into the Illinois Bank and Trust Building and ended with the suppression of a race riot on the South Side.
With his main focus on the major headlines, Krist manages to weave a story with human elements, partly by incorporating the stories of individuals such as Sterling Morton, heir to the Morton Salt fortune and a militia soldier stationed in Chicago during the riots. Less tied in to the activities is Emily Frankenstein, a young girl whose daily diary entries allow Krist to explore how someone not involved directly with any of the events saw them, including her concern over her boyfriendís safety at the height of the riots.
The rivalry between Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson and Illinois governor Frank O. Lowden is also an important part of the story, for the two men's antipathy, borne out of Lowden's perceived betrayal of Thompson, caused the two men to act in ways detrimental to the city because they didn't want to allow the other to take credit and would rather see their actions fail, whether in relation to the streetcar strike or the riot.
By following the activity of the various crises on a day-by-day basis, Krist is able to show how most of that activity overlapped. The streetcar strike and the riot, in particular, played off each other and caused a worsening of the situation. This structure also serves as a reminder that Chicago was a vast city and there is no single narrative which can possibly come close to explaining everything that was happening.
Although Kristís thesis is that the crisis over a twelve day period changed Chicago, he fails to knit the various events into a coherent whole. The Wingfoot Air Express crash is handled on its own with the inquest barely overlapping with the riots which began as the inquest was wrapping up. The disappearance of Willingham was taking place on the far North side, away from the majority of the riots and Krist indicates that the search and funeral were hardly hampered by the transit strike. The ongoing bombing campaign that targeted African Americans and landlords who rented to them throughout 1919 and 1920 is given short shrift in the narrative and, although Krist does link it to the riots as one exacerbating factor, he fails to provide support that all these events taken together changed Chicagoís direction, especially with his explanation that Thompson was able to regain his popularity by the end of the year.
Krist does manage to create a sense of the time, offering up a Chicago which was physically very different than the modern city, but which was dealing with problems, from graft to racial issues, which still linger, and sometimes flair up, in the modern city. His style is inviting and makes the reader want to learn more about the city and the individuals who populated it during this period.
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