City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

by Gary Krist


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The masterfully told story of twelve volatile days in the life of Chicago, when an aviation disaster, a race riot, a crippling transit strike, and a sensational child murder transfixed and roiled a city already on the brink of collapse.

When 1919 began, the city of Chicago seemed on the verge of transformation. Modernizers had an audacious, expensive plan to turn the city from a brawling, unglamorous place into "the Metropolis of the World." But just as the dream seemed within reach, pandemonium broke loose and the city's highest ambitions were suddenly under attack by the same unbridled energies that had given birth to them in the first place.

It began on a balmy Monday afternoon when a blimp in flames crashed through the roof of a busy downtown bank, incinerating those inside. Within days, a racial incident at a hot, crowded South Side beach spiraled into one of the worst urban riots in American history, followed by a transit strike that paralyzed the city. Then, when it seemed as if things could get no worse, police searching for a six-year-old girl discovered her body in a dark North Side basement.

Meticulously researched and expertly paced, City of Scoundrels captures the tumultuous birth of the modern American city, with all of its light and dark aspects in vivid relief.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307454294
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 04/17/2012
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.34(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.34(d)

About the Author

Gary Krist has written for the New York Times, Esquire, Salon, Washington Post Book World, and elsewhere.  He is the author of the acclaimed The White Cascade as well as several works of fiction.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Burning Hive: July 21, 1919 xv

Part 1 Collision Course: January 1 to July 21, 1919 21

Part 2 Crisis: July 22 to July 31, 1919 115

Part 3 From the Ashes: August 1, 1919, to late 1920 223

Epilogue: The Two Chicagos: May 14, 1920 261

Acknowledgments 275

Notes 279

Bibliography 321

Index 335

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"(An) eager narrative that delivers vivid reading." — Kirkus Reviews

"The most compelling adventure yarn, full of crashing dirigibles, bloody riots, and classic crooks. Loved it." —Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent

"A lavishly intricate, well-paced account of a great city lashed to the breaking point by a political perfect storm." —New York Times



A Conversation with Gary Krist Author of City Of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Q. The books you've written have ranged very widely, both in genre and in subject matter. What drew you to write narrative nonfiction about Chicago?
A. Whether I'm writing short fiction, thrillers, or narrative history, my goal is always to find compelling stories to tell, and there's no richer source of narrative than a major urban metropolis. The old TV series was right: There really are eight million stories in the naked city. But in this book I'm also trying to tell the larger, overarching story of the city itself—to show how those 8 million (or, in Chicago's case, 3 million) individual narratives coalesced to give rise to the great urban centers we see today.

Q. But why Chicago?
A. Because Chicago, more than any other city in the country, was really what you might call the great test case of urban America in the late-19th and early-20th century. The growth of any large city is inevitably a tumultuous process, full of strife, but with a city of immigrants, it involves an almost Darwinian struggle among scores of different ethnicities, races, and economic classes. And in Chicago—with its huge immigrant population and sudden influx of southern black migrants during the Progressive Era —this process was especially dramatic. Granted, New York might have been bigger and arguably just as diverse, but Chicago was a much younger city, its institutions far less established, and it was growing faster and more chaotically. That's why Chicago, not New York, was regarded as the wonder of the age—precisely because it was a colossus that had sprung up out of nothing over just a few decades. (As Otto von Bismarck famously remarked, "I wish I could go to America if only to see that Chicago.") And, of course, there was no guarantee that it was going to succeed. Would this vastly diverse group of refugees from every corner of the globe really manage to come together and, despite manifold hatreds and competing interests, successfully transform a former frontier village into one of the economic and cultural powerhouses of the world? No one really knew. So Chicago was, to a certain extent, a great experiment. And there were some frightening times when it looked as if the entire experiment might come crashing down under the weight of too many groups of people wanting too many different things.

Q. So what made you choose this particular 12-day period in Chicago's history?
A. It's one of those frightening times that hasn't really been recognized by historians. Every city, of course, goes through critical turning points, and Chicago has had more than its share—the Great Fire of 1871, the world's fair of 1893, the riots of 1968—all of which have been written about before. But no one has really focused on the summer crisis of 1919, when Chicago went from a state of high optimism about its future to the brink of civic collapse and martial law, all within the space of 12 days. World War I was over, and the city had just begun implementing its great vision for the future—the so-called Plan of Chicago, architect Daniel Burnham's utopian redevelopment scheme that was supposed to turn Chicago into "the Metropolis of the World." But on the very same day that the City Council was voting on this blueprint for urban perfection, the whole city started coming apart in a terrifying way. A blimp crashed into the downtown financial district, a horrifying race riot broke out, a train and streetcar strike paralyzed the city, and a brutal child murder made people wonder whether even their next-door neighbors could be trusted—all over 12 short days. To those living through it, it looked as if the entire fabric of normal existence—the underpinning of basic stability that any society rests on—was suddenly unraveling before their eyes. I remember sitting in the newspaper microfilm room at the Chicago Public Library, reading about all of this in a state of utter incredulity. It was such a vivid illustration of how the very same energies and ambitions that combine to build a great American city can so easily go awry and threaten to destroy it.

Q. But Chicago obviously survived the crisis. What happened?
A. Well, it's hard to sum up in a few words, but ultimately it came down to something very personal—a late-night showdown between the Mayor of Chicago and the Governor of Illinois (who absolutely loathed each other) over whether to turn the militia loose on the streets of the city. Thanks largely to the outcome of that clash of personalities, order was eventually restored. And as so often happens in the wake of disasters, the city eventually came back in some ways stronger than before—though for a time it certainly didn't look as if it would.

Q. There are so many intriguing characters in the cast of City of Scoundrels. Was there one figure that stood out as your favorite?
A. No question about it: Big Bill Thompson, the mayor. Big Bill is really a narrative historian's greatest gift—a loud, outrageous blowhard in a cowboy hat who liked to think of himself as "the People's David," defending the average Chicagoan against the Goliaths of wealth and privilege. The local press liked to depict him as an extravagantly corrupt demagogue and buffoon, which to an extent he was, and he was certainly guilty of some shamefully dirty fighting against his enemies. But he was also an extremely savvy politician who was remarkably ahead of his time in things like bringing African Americans into the political process. And say what you will about him, many of the civic monuments that make today's Chicago such a remarkable urban showcase were created under the leadership of "Big Bill the Builder" (another of his favorite nicknames), even if, thanks to the economics of machine politics, they ended up costing the taxpayers a lot more than they should have. I think Big Bill deserves a place right up there in the pantheon of great American con artists, maybe somewhere between Huey Long and P.T. Barnum.

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City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
simple344 More than 1 year ago
very interesting book outline, so naturally had to get the this book. It did not disappoint!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In a review I just wrote (but doesn't yet appear) I complained about a lack of photos that appeared in the hardbound version. I was wrong. While the section appears several pages past where it is in the hardbound version, it is there. And it is even shown in the Table of Contents (which I am sure I'd checked earlier but apparently not -- or there are pesky gremlins that sneaked it in after I complained) So, consider my complaint withdrawn and I shall amend my initial review if possible (and when it appears) and add a star as I have done here.
anchorworm More than 1 year ago
This was an enjoyable, informative read. It is a look back at the city of Chicago in the first part of the last century. The book looks at a terrible time for the city, from a blimp crash into a bank in the loop, to a child's murder, to the worst race riot the city had seen. It also looks at the mayor's office and how glad handing and racial politics affected the response of the city to these problems.
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
Gary Krist has written an extremely detailed account of what he calls the twelve days in 1919 that changed and made the city of Chicago.  This involved a supposed "treat ride on the new Goodyear blimp" that was a disaster when it caught fire and fell ablaze into the center of a popular Chicago bank; a transit strike that turned into a political battleground; race riots between the blacks that were making a new life for themselves in the north, and the whites who didn't want them there; and the murder of a six year old girl by a disturbed man.  Krist tells this tale through detailed accounts of people's letters and journals, and accounts from newspapers and other first hand reports of the time.  For lovers of extensive histories of Chicago, I believe this book is a must read.  For historians of American politics, this reads like political battles of the present day.  But, perhaps for the casual reader, this was a bit long winded.  Some personal views of lovers or militia men, plus names of many of the victims from these different events were not truly necessary.  But, I believe this book was well done for exactly what it claims to be telling---the events that changed a city into the political being, and visual entity that it is today.
MickMurph More than 1 year ago
I was born and raised in Chicago, I absolutely love everything about this city, except the cubs and northsiders! haha.... Iam always interested in anything having to do with city's history. Gary Krist does an excellent job of explaining the early part of the twentieth century in Chicago. There have been many books Ive read relating to this city's history, but I found this book to be extremely informative and introduced a lot of facts about Chicago's past that I never knew before
Colinus More than 1 year ago
Extremely interesting account of events I'd never even heard of before reading the book. It reads like fiction, I couldn't put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book starts off strong but subject matter becomes less compelling as the book progresses.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book basically tells the story of several events which transpired during a short period of time in 1919 Chicago with Mr. Krist trying to tie them together. Although I applaud Mr. Krist's meticulous research, I found the book somewhat laborious and at times boring. I was originally attracted to this book because it covered the 1919 Wingfoot Dirigible disaster which I had never read anything about beyond newspaper accounts of the time. Although it did a fair job on this event, the book got bogged down talking extensively about Chicago Mayor William Thompson, his political career and battles with the governor of Illinois, and the city political scene. The coverage of the Chicago Race Riot was fairly done as well, but did not seem all that different from other sources I have read. I did find the inclusion of several eyewitness accounts from sources I did not know of to be interesting. If you want to read about the 1919 Chicago political landscape then you should find it of interest. It took me some time to get through it because of the detailed political information which caused me to put it down a few times while trying to read it. My overall rating, well, I would have to give this book a C+ and a so so recommendation for the reasons stated.
lincoln1865 More than 1 year ago
This book was very interesting. A little too much political stuff (which I usually like), but intriguing stories about the race riots, and blimp disaster.
HALRPH More than 1 year ago
Writing style can be a bit sensationalized - but its an interesting history of my most favorite and the best city in the Whole World - Sweet Home Chicago! well referenced
Darcia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book starts by pulling us into a dramatic scene of a blimp crashing into the heart of Chicago. The author uses personal accounts to re-tell this story and it reads like the best thriller. Unfortunately, the intensity is lost when from there we go into an in-depth look at backroom city politics. We're given a tremendous amount of detail about the Chicago mayor and his run for office. For me, the detail was more than I needed or wanted and I found myself losing interest.Eventually, we get a reprieve from the politics and learn about a missing girl, the racial strife and the resulting riots. These segments fascinated me and pulled me right back to the moment in history. Between these stories, we return to the overly detailed inner workings of city politics, focusing specifically on the mayor. I didn't feel the ending wrapped things up in a way that made me understand how those specific twelve days in history led Chicago to become the city it is today. However, the sections about the blimp and the racial strife fascinated me and were incredibly well told.
dpappas on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a fascinating look at Chicago in 1919. While the title states that this is about "12 days of Disaster" it seemed more like the whole year of 1919. There were many events in 1919 that changed Chicago forever; while most of these events do take place in the 12 days mentioned, I don't think that it was only those 12 days that mattered the most. Some of the events that took place I didn't know about prior to reading this book so it was nice to learn more about my hometown. I would recommend this book to Chicago natives and also to those interested in Chicago history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent account of politics and events in Chicago
Tabi0 More than 1 year ago
Amazing! Gary Krist strikes again!!
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