Thursday, February 11, 2010


It's Mardi Gras time and many long for the bad old days when Chicago, the City of Broad Shoulders showed the world how to party. The party to end all parties was Chicago's First Ward Ball which was held every year from 1896 to 1908. This annual revelry was the brainchild of Chicago's infamous First Ward aldermen, Bathhouse John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna. (In those days, each ward had 2 aldermen.) They were known as the "Lords of the Levee". Their claim to fame was that they controlled the rackets and vice in their downtown Chicago district--the numerous brothels, gambling houses, and who knows what.

Bathhouse John was a beefy, boisterous braggart who wore garish clothes and wrote bad poetry. A good hearted man, he was the caricature of an old style politician. He acquired his nickname as a young man who worked in a bathhouse as a "rubber" (he gave massages). Hinky Dink was the quiet political organizer. He owned a tavern on Clark Street called the Workingmen's Exchange which was the informal headquarters of the Democratic Party in the First Ward. He got his moniker from Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph Medill because of his small stature.

On Election Day, Kenna's party workers (who all had City jobs)rounded up the many lowlifes in the Ward and shepherded them to the polls and gave them marked ballots to drop in the box and bring back unmarked ballots in return for a dollar or so or a free lunch. The unmarked ballots were then marked again and brought to a different polling place.

The colorful duo's best known activity was their annual fundraiser, the First Ward Ball, which was held at the Chicago Coliseum on South Wabash Avenue. It was the great equalizer in which underworld characters like pimps, prostitutes, gamblers, pickpockets, assorted thrill seekers and even Republicans mingled with politicians and police officials for a decadent night of revelry and depravity. Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink paid for the event by selling overpriced tickets to the tavern owners and racketeers in their ward. Of course, a business declining to purchase tickets could expect an army of city inspectors to drop in looking for Code violations or worse. Each individual pimp, prostitute, pickpocket and thief was required to buy at least one ticket, but the tavern and brothel owners had to spring for blocks of tickets.

On a December night, 20,000 drunken revelers crowded into the Coliseum, spilling out into the street to greet their two patrons who arrived by carriage. Bathhouse John, dressed in a lavender tie and red sash, led the parade into the building, followed by a procession of Levee prostitutes. Authors Wendt and Kogan elaborated on it, "On they came, madams, strumpets, airily clad jockeys, harlequins, Diana's, page boys, female impersonators, tramps, panhandlers, card sharps, mountebanks...." I'm not even sure what some of those are! Men dressed as women, women dressed as men! Don't even ask about the dogs and horses. Remember, this was 1908, not today.

According to the Chicago Tribune, describing the 1908 event, "During the evening, revelers slopped up 10,000 quarts of champagne and 30,000 quarts of beer. Riotous drunks stripped off the costumes of unattended young women. A madam named French Annie stabbed her boyfriend with a hat pin.... Kenna proudly proclaimed, 'Chicago ain't no sissy town.'"

The Everleigh Sisters, Minna and Ada (no relation to the Everly Brothers) were there, seated in their private box with their girls. They owned the lavish Everleigh Club, the "classiest" and most famous of the brothels, catering to the politicians and movers and shakers. When they were closed down by the Mayor in 1911, they tried to Take a Message to Mary, but instead they sang Bye Bye Love .

The law enforcement community was present at the festivities with a full contingent of 100 policemen. The less than zealous cops managed to make 8 arrests and obtain one conviction. The unfortunate Bernard Dooley was convicted and fined for crashing the party without paying! Don't let it happen again, Pal!

After the outrageous 1908 affair, the reformers came out in full force and put pressure on Mayor Fred Busse to end it. He refused to issue a liquor license for the 1909 Ball and had the police on hand to make sure that none was served. With no booze, the 1909 First Ward Ball, if you could call it that, attracted only 3000 people who fell asleep from boredom.

Despite the corruption and depravity of Bathhouse and Hinky Dink, no criminal charges were ever brought against either of them. Coughlin was once accused by a major newspaper of corruption and he demanded a retraction, not because he was accused of graft, but because the paper falsely claimed that he was born in Waukegan, Illinois. (See KENSUSKINREPORT, Dec. 25, 2007). Hinky Dink stepped down as alderman in 1923 when the number of aldermen was reduced, but he remained the Democratic Ward Committeeman until his death in 1946 at age 89. Bathhouse remained alderman until his death in 1938.

Thus, the year 1908 is fondly remembered in Chicago as the last hurrah for the First Ward Ball. As for the 1907 and 1908 Cubs' World Series Champions, their baseball fortunes looked bright for the three-peat in 1909 and the future.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a whole lot has changed since then.

February 12, 2010 at 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have to express more your opinion to attract more readers, because just a video or plain text without any personal approach is not that valuable. But it is just form my point of view

February 19, 2010 at 10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very shorts, simple and easy to understand, bet some more comments from your side would be great

March 13, 2010 at 1:44 PM  
Anonymous Chisel said...

the names have changed but little else.

July 23, 2013 at 7:29 AM  

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