Most folks know that Chicago has been nicknamed the Windy City. Other aliases that the city has assumed are the Second City and the City That Works. In a famous poem it was referred to as The City With Big Shoulders, and some have been known to celebrate it in song as “That Toddlin’ Town.” But few have heard Chicago labeled the Wicked City, although at times in its history that sobriquet was deservedly applied to America’s Sin Capital of the Midwest. Through various administrations it existed as a wide open town, with prostitution, gambling, bootlegging, drug-dealing, graft and corruption reaching to the highest levels and creating an inviting and fertile environment for the professional criminal.
The writers take us down an avenue of characters, civic accomplishments and crimes whose landmarks are the restaurants, brothels, distilleries and gaming houses belonging to the likes of Giacomo “Big Jim” Colosimo, Giuseppe “Diamond Joe” Esposito (once referred to as the unofficial mayor of Little Italy), the Everly Sisters, Johnny “The Fox” Torrio, “Bloody” Angelo Genna, Dion “Deanie” O’Banion, George “Bugs” Moran, and finally the Big Guy himself, Alphonse “Scarface” Capone. Along the way we pay visits to City Hall where Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson sits in a back room smoking cigars with some suspicious-looking fellows; we pop in at the mansions of the Fields, the Pullmans, the McCormicks, the Palmers and the Armours to see what well-dressed skeletons lurk inside their plush closets; we spy a young Theodore Dreiser hurrying on his way to work for the Chicago Daily Globe; and stop at the sweat-filled gyms and locker rooms of Jack Dempsey, Harold “Red” Grange and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson for a bit of athletic distraction. As the hour grows late, we sneak into an outfit-owned muggles-smoke-filled speakeasy where the great Louis Armstrong is experimenting on his horn to the delight of writhing revelers drunk on jazz and illicit booze.
Unfortunately, for each person who found this street to be a road paved with gold, there were others for whom it proved to be the famous Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Witness the tragedy of Louis Henri Sullivan, master architect of the internationally renowned Chicago School and designer of some of the most beautiful edifices in the world, who died destitute and alone in 1924, just as others were reaping the rewards of Chicago’s Prohibition-era potential. It’s been said of late that with the ascension of Michael Jordan to the title of “The Most Famous Chicagoan,” thus dethroning Al Capone, and the recent uneventful and “exemplary” Democratic Convention whose idyllic calm allegedly shed the pesky ‘68 syndrome, Chicago has finally laid to rest the ghosts of its disreputable past. However the slew of recent Federal investigations digging into the phenomenon of “ghosts” on the city payroll (Operation Haunted Hall), avaricious aldermen who take money for the right to illegally dump garbage in their wards (Operation Silver Shovel) and trust-betraying policemen who simultaneously solve crimes while also committing them (Operation Broken Star) prove the old adage that in some places tradition dies hard. Wicked City Chicago is an invaluable guide to the sowing, nurturing and reaping of the seeds of this old tradition. As a venerable sage once said, Chicago by any other name still smells the same.
Paperback: 390 pages