TOUGH GUYS IN THE ROOM

17 BIG BILL THOMPSON

Corrupt is the wrong word for men like Big Bill Thompson.  Corruption was what he did to others and an American democratic process.   Men like Big Bill Thompson bluster their way to the front of the queue by making false promises and by denying what is really happening.  At the front of the queue, such men and women feel entitled to take from the rest obliged to stand in line.  What suits Big Bill Thompson better is the American word boodler.  Thompson boodled.  He was Mayor of Chicago for two terms from 1915 to 1923 and one term from 1927 to 1931.   Big Bill Thompson took from everyone and boodled all.  Previous mayors had received their payoffs through the aldermen that controlled the wards or districts.   Big Bill was content to have payoffs made to him in person and at his office.  He was almost 77 years old when he died in 1944.  Two safe deposit boxes in his name contained $1.84m.  

The last attempt by Big Bill to be Mayor of Chicago happened in 1931.    Six generations of the Thompson family had lived in the USA but the ethnic slurs of Thompson against his opponent failed to ignite his campaign.  The people of Chicago chose immigrant Anton Cermak.  In the 1927 election the low tactics of Big Bill had been successful, as they had been in the two previous campaigns.  He  claimed that ‘all us lowbrows gotta stick together.’   Big Bill was anti-Polish in the Chicago wards heavily populated by Germans and anti-German in the wards where Polish residents were the majority.  Big Bill was somehow able to identify the existence and behaviour of the British as a threat to the citizens of Chicago.  Before he became mayor for the second time in 1921, Big Bill attacked William McAndrew, the superintendent of schools.  Thompson claimed that McAndrew was indoctrinating Chicago schoolchildren with a pro-British view of American history.  More than once Big Bill promised that he would punch King George V in the nose if he ever met him.   In 1924 and a year after he had failed to make an impression in the 1923 mayoral election, Big Bill built a boat that he said he would sail to the South Seas.  He offered to bet anyone the $25,000 cost of the schooner.  The bet was that he would complete the trip. The bluster of Big Bill was persuasive, and no one accepted his bet.  Big Bill made it as far as New Orleans.  

Thompson mounted Wild West-style parades that included horses and clowns.  The bootleggers donated cash to his political campaigns and leaned on voters at the polls.  Capone gave $250,000 to the Thompson mayoral campaign of 1927.  Big Bill declared himself ‘wetter than the Atlantic Ocean.’   He promised that Chicago policemen would need warrants before they could ‘invade a place of business or home.’  What he meant by ‘places of business’ were the speakeasies, gambling joints and brothels.  Big Bill identified two of his political opponents as the rats in the cages he held up in the air.   Like a ventriloquist, except that his lips moved, Big Bill feigned a debate with his opponents.  Humorist Will Rogers responded to the victory of Thompson by saying,  ‘They were trying to beat Big Bill with the better element.  The trouble is that there ain’t much better element in Chicago.’  The Chicago Tribune reacted to the 1927 victory of Thompson by equating the mayor with ‘filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy,’ and his legacy with ‘moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft and a dejected citizenship.’  The editorials in other American newspapers were not quite as heartfelt or indignant but twenty-two of them described him as an international clown.  After Big Bill was re-elected the increase in illegal gambling created a growth in the number of gambling houses.  The extra competition meant reduced profits, and the syndicates cooperated to equate supply with demand.  Capone and Moran applied pressure on the smaller operators until the numbers of gambling joints were reduced.   Well, politicians should be used to unforeseen consequences.

Thompson was born in Boston in 1869 but moved to Chicago when he was nine days old.  Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-three he lived in Wyoming and acquired some cowboy skills.  Out west, he owned cattle and made $30,000.  In 1892 his father died, his mother pleaded and Big Bill returned to Chicago to manage the family estate.  Eight years later he entered politics and became the alderman of the 2nd ward.  Thompson formed a partnership with Frederick Lundin.  At twenty years of age, Lundin had set himself up as a medicine-show salesman of a beverage called Juniper Ade.  Two African-Americans played banjos and helped Lundin put on a show for the customers.  Either Lundin was a decent salesman or the two banjo players knew how to pick a tune because later he served a term in the State Senate.  Lundin recognised his true skills were organisational.  Thompson presented a man of the people figure to the electorate.  Lundin stayed in the background organising not just the political campaigns of Thompson but the administration and the paybacks.  Thompson and Lundin benefitted from building contracts.  Streets were widened and improved.  Madison Avenue Bridge was erected across the Chicago River.  Thompson acquired the nickname Big Bill the Builder.

Thompson may have been corrupt but as mayor he sometimes surprised.  He defended the rights of the teachers of Chicago to join a union.   By 1921 the salaries of schoolteachers and policemen had substantially increased.  The Chief Executive Officer of Public Schools, Peter Morterson, created local councils to give the teachers a greater say in local affairs.  Louise DeKoven Bowen was a reformer that believed in the rights of women and improving the lives of children.  She objected to the children of Chicago being given a free trip to the Riverview Amusement Park.  DeKoven Bowen felt the amusement park was vulgar and horrid.  The resistance by Thompson to DeKoven Bowen hardly qualifies him as a revolutionary but it did prevent a killjoy destroying a rare day out for poor kids.  In the 1927 Mayoral election more than 92% of the African American vote went to Thompson.   ‘Policy’ was a gambling scheme similar to the numbers racket and was popular amongst African Americans.  Thompson argued that the low stakes ‘policy’ bets helped to lubricate the economy of African Americans.  Not just his support for ‘policy’ gambling endeared Big Bill Thompson to African Americans.  He described himself as their friend.  On occasion, Thompson was condemned by opponents for being sympathetic to African Americans.  Of course, it was just talk.  Big Bill did nothing about the campaign of bombings by white homeowners’ associations against African American residents.  58 of these bombing incidents were recorded between 1917 and 1921  Nor did Thompson appoint, as he should have done, an African American to the board of education.

Judge John H Lyle selected a different line of attack when he opposed Thompson in the Republican primaries prior to the 1931 Mayoral election.  Lyle argued that a vote for him was a vote against Al Capone.   The campaign of Lyle to many felt like a contest between the judge and the gangster.   The electors should not have been surprised.  Judge John H Lyle always set a $55,000 bail bond for any bootleggers that appeared in his court.   Thompson had hoped to be the Republican presidential candidate when Calvin Coolidge decided not to seek re-election in 1929.   The campaign of Thompson was initially stoked by him making repeated denials of his presidential ambition.  As the denials became less insistent, questions were asked about the financial relationship that existed between Thompson and Capone.  Any prospects of a presidential campaign soon disappeared, and Big Bill made a retreat.  There were also memories of the ‘pineapple primaries’ that happened in 1928.   

Thompson was the mayor and did not run but he wanted his people in key positions.  Thompson had a pact with Senator Charles S Deneen, head of the only other Republican faction.   Bob Crowe wanted his friend Bernard Basara to have a place on the Board of Review.  Deneen supported the incumbent, Edward R Litsinger.  The conflict meant the pact was broken.  Deneen ran candidates for all offices.   The first four bombings targeted the men of Thompson.  No one was hurt, and it looked like Thompson was set for a victory that would require nothing more than conventional campaigning.  ‘Diamond’ Joe Esposito has been described as the most effective politician that worked for Deneen.   Esposito was the opponent of Crowe supporter Joseph Savage in the contest for Twenty-fifth Ward committeeman.  ‘Diamond’ Joe Esposito was murdered on March 21 1928.   Five days later and on the night of the funeral of Esposito the home of Deneen was bombed.  Judge John A Swanson was opposing Bob Crowe for the position of state attorney.   His home was bombed five minutes after the attack on the residence of Deneen.  Bob Crowe alleged that his opponents were so desperate they were now bombing their own homes.   Swanson made the telling point that he was in his home at the time of the bombing and was lucky to survive.  In the wards that Capone managed the Thompson candidates were elected by slim margins,  Bob Crowe, though, lost to Sawnson, and Bernard Barasa lost to Edward Litsinger.   

If Mayor Cermak organised the Democrats in Chicago into a competitive and effective political machine, the cry that the result of the primary was the birth of a ‘moral Chicago’ was misplaced.  Frank Nitti alleged that Cermak was as corrupt as Big Bill Thompson.   Anton Cermak was assassinated in 1933.  The assassin Guiseppe Zangara was attempting to kill Franklin D Roosevelt.  Zangara missed his target and killed the man shaking hands with the President.  The alternative account is that Capone ordered the assassination of Cermak and the story by Zangara was an invention to divert attention from what was a gangland killing.   There is little in this tall tale that convinces.   The gangsters had survived the reign of reformist Mayor William Emmett Dever in 1923 to 1927 and Cermak was less reformist than Dever.  But, assuming that the rumour is true, the influence of Capone in 1933 is exaggerated.   Capone had retreated to Miami, and Nitti was now running the outfit.  If Cermak did die because of a gangland killing, the favourite suspect is Frank Nitti.   Al Capone never voted for Big Bill Thompson nor anyone else.  He never even registered to vote. 

Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Long After This is now available here.