Monday, April 23, 2012

City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist

Chicagoans rang in the new year with optimism in 1919. The world war was over, and the influenza epidemic had subsided. The city's industrial infrastructure was expanded, and the mayor was determined the city would develop architect Daniel Burnham's visionary plan for the lakefront and central city. If everyone worked together, the future was bright. 1919, however, proved to be a difficult year, according to Gary Krist in his new history City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago.

Tragic might be a better term than difficult. No one seems to have realized that the end of the war lessened the call for industrial production, and with soldiers returning, the labor force was expanding. During the war, thousands of blacks from the South had come to fill the labor shortage. Racial tension was bound to increase as everyone competed for jobs. Manufactures hoped to keep or reduce wages, while unions demanded raises, as did transportation workers. Chicago already had a history of labor violence. The situation was explosive, literally, as whites began bombing the homes of blacks in the late winter and spring, just as the vote came for the election of mayor.

Mayor William Hale Thompson, the key scoundrel in the story, pursued a political path that increased divisions among the many parties. His story ran in all the daily newspapers, along with headlines about the murder of a child, a terrible airship accidents, the start of Prohibition, race riots, and a transit strike. Later, members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to lose the World Series. Krist weaves the many plots together, focusing much of the book on the hot days of July when the riots tore through the South Side.

As a reader, I am not really sure how Chicago was changed by these events. Corruption, violence, and prejudice were at high levels before and after that year. Perhaps pessimism grew, but Chicago was becoming modern long before 1919. Nonetheless, Krist tells a great story, and I enjoyed learning about the many players in the tragedy, not all of whom were scoundrels. City of Scoundrels is a quick read for anyone interested in American history.

Krist, Gary. City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. Crown Publishers, 2012. ISBN 9780307454294.

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