Sometimes stereotypes ring true -- such as in Chicago, summer of 1919, when for a dozen violent and confusing days it indeed resembled the raw-knuckled, back-room-dealing, racially polarized humidor of a city we know today. Over 12 fateful days, Chicago witnessed the first major aviation disaster in the nation (a blimp!), the kidnapping and murder of a 6-year-old girl, a transit strike and a vicious race riot in which dozens of victims were brutally murdered and hundreds more injured. The weather? Scorching, muggy and miserable, of course.
From the first riveting pages in "City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago," author Gary Krist masterfully sets the reader down into the vortex of this urban maelstrom. We follow the crash of the Wingfoot Express during the fateful final hours of Illinois Trust and Savings Bank telegrapher Carl Otto, who had just returned to work after miraculously fighting off the deadly Spanish influenza only to suffer a direct hit from the blimp's burning engine.
The accident, which came on the heels of the end of World War I and on the eve of ambitious plans for the city's expansion, would soon be overtaken by similarly tragic events in what would be dubbed "The Red Summer." Krist writes, "The result would be widespread violence in the streets, turning neighbor against neighbor, white against black, worker against coworker, while rendering the city's leaders helpless to maintain order."
While bringing these events to life Krist deftly juggles several story lines by using some of the city's most famous personalities of the past century. Iconic writers such as Ring Lardner and Carl Sandburg did some of their best work during this time for the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News, respectively.
Krist also delves into the Windy City's nasty political arena, profiling the corrupt, self-centered, yet popular mayor, "Big Bill" Thompson, who bungles the transit strike and the race riot, all in the name of politics. (What's new?) His career was aided by William Lorimer, aka the "Blond Boss of Illinois politics," and Fred Lundin, "the poor Swede," who once said of his protégé (in a line that could work during any political season), "He may not be too much on brains, but he gets through to people."
One heroine does emerge. Journalist, anti-lynching advocate and mother of six Ida B. Wells-Barnett becomes the squeaky wheel conscience of the South Side during the horrible race riots in the "Black Belt." She continually challenged the powers that be, writing in the Daily Journal that "Chicago is weak and helpless before the mob. Notwithstanding our boasted democracy, lynch law is king."
Order would be restored and Chicago would continue to flex and grow into the global city it is today. Still, while "City of Scoundrels" harkens to an earlier time of rampant discrimination and political ineptitude, it's hard not to notice how little progress we've made.
Chicago native Stephen J. Lyons' latest book is "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River." He is at work on a book about the Driftless Region of the Upper Midwest.