A century ago, before reformers (cough, cough) took over Chicago, the city’s Red Light District, on the Near South Side, was known as the Levee. It was a shopping mall for every low craving and vice a man could desire, especially gambling, prostitution, and gin.
The Lords of the Levee were a pair of Irishmen named Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin, aldermen of the 1st Ward and numbers 3 and 4 on our list of corrupt politicians. Before (cough, cough) reform, every ward elected two aldermen. Both were creatures of the Levee.
Kenna ran a saloon, and Coughlin had worked his way up from scrubber to operate his own public bath. Hinky Dink and Bathhouse were a perfect example of how the system worked: they kept each other dishonest. If one got lazy in his search for graft, the other picked up the slack. They built their political empire on protection money from saloonkeepers, pimps and bookies.
Graft wasn’t their only source of money, though. Every year, they threw Chicago’s biggest party, the First Ward Ball, which eventually became such a popular affair it had to be held in the Chicago Coliseum. Not even that arena could contain the revelry. As the Tribune would later write:
The first ball, held at the 7th Regiment Armory on South Wentworth Avenue in 1896, had attracted a wild mix of society thrill seekers, police captains, politicians, prostitutes and gamblers.
The 1908 ball made that affair look tame. During the course of the evening, revelers slopped up 10,000 quarts of champagne and 30,000 quarts of beer. Riotous drunks stripped off the costumes of unattended young women. A madam named French Annie stabbed her boyfriend with a hat pin.
“It’s a lollapalooza! . . . There are more here than ever before. All the business houses are here, all the big people,” Kenna proudly proclaimed. “Chicago ain’t no sissy town.”
As the aldermen with the largest endowment, Hinky Dink and Bathhouse naturally became leaders of the City Council. They headed the pack of what were known as the “Gray Wolves.” At the turn of the 20th Century, Chicago was growing spectacularly. The Gray Wolves extracted bribes from businessmen who wanted to provide electricity, gas, and public transit.
Eventually, the party ended. Mayor Fred Busse, a Republican and a wet blanket, appointed a vice commission that resulted in shutting down the brothels and the First Ward Ball. The city charter was amended to allow one alderman per ward, probably on the grounds that fewer aldermen would mean fewer guys on the take. So instead of serving together, Hinky Dink and Bathhouse served separately.
Coughlin held the seat from 1923 until his death in 1938. Kenna then took over, and served until he died in 1946, at age 89, the last living link to Chicago’s most uproarious era. Even after his death, Kenna was involved in a swindle. As part of his million dollar estate, he directed that he be buried in a mausoleum. But his heirs bought an $85 tombstone and kept the rest of the money for themselves.
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