"Chicago by Gaslight" | Elmhurst Public Library | Lectures | Chicago Reader
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"Chicago by Gaslight" 

When: Wed., Aug. 12, 7 p.m. 2009
Talk by historian Richard C. Lindberg (The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago's Democratic Machine). Most people attribute the formation of Chicago's Democratic machine to Mayor Richard J. Daley, who perfected the hierarchical spoils system during his 21-year reign. Real political junkies may trace its origins to Anton Cermak, who, as mayor from 1931 to 1933, created a formidable organization by divvying up jobs and contracts among different ethnic groups—or to "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna, two turn-of-the-century aldermen who consolidated their power by hooking up with the operators of gambling dens, saloons, and brothels. But historian Richard C. Lindberg argues that they all built on the structure provided by a 19th-century underworld leader. In his meticulously researched new book, The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago's Democratic Machine (Southern Illinois University Press), Lindberg reconstructs how his title character went from conning train passengers as an adolescent in the 1850s to ensuring the 1892 election of Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld. McDonald was a brilliant businessman who ran the finest gambling establishments in town, but every so often reformer types would send the police in to shut him down, so he put the cops on his payroll, and then the police chief. And since the police chief reported to the mayor, McDonald got him on board too. And money wasn't his only tool: McDonald also formed alliances based on culture and ethnic pride, teaming up, for instance, with beer-loving German immigrants to crush do-gooders and prohibitionists. From the 1870s through the '90s McDonald controlled much of the City Council and Cook County government, fixed trials to keep associates out of jail, and arranged for the construction of the Lake Street el to give the public easy access to his Garfield Park racetrack. Lindberg's writing is dense at times, and his story is occasionally obscured by an excess of names and details. But patient readers will be rewarded with a colorful glimpse of 19th-century Chicago that reveals quite a bit about why the city is still infected with graft and corruption. --Mick Dumke

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