Filling 'Big Bill's' britches
As history tells it, not a good mayoral goal for Rahm Emanuel
The south side's Oak Wood Cemetery is one of the most historic in the city and is home of many famous Chicago figures including two mayors, William Hale Thompson and Harold Washington. Monday, Mar. 7, 2011, in Chicago. (Tribune photo by Charles Osgood / December 14, 2010)
William Hale Thompson stood only 6 feet tall but weighed 240 pounds, and though there is no scientifically proven correlation between physical size and ego, Big Bill was outsize in that department too.
It is also a reminder of how fascinating cemeteries can be, combining as they do art, history and wonder, and the ability to spur people to learn more about the buried bones. (Easy in this case since my father, Herman, and his newspaperman pal Lloyd Wendt wrote the definitive Thompson biography, "Big Bill of Chicago," in 1953.) Oak Woods, for instance, also is home to Enrico Fermi and Ida B. Wells, as well as a "Big Jim," Thompson-era local mobster Giacomo Colosimo.
Big Bill was born in Boston in 1867, the son of wealthy parents. He grew up here, headed west at 15 to make his own fortune and then returned to the city to make his colorful mark.
He was elected mayor three times, serving from 1915 to 1923 and again from 1927 to 1931. During the 1927 election, in which he was abetted by that noted political consultant Al Capone, he held a debate between himself and two live white rats, which he carried onto a stage to represent his opponents. He also, in no particular order, threatened to punch England's King George V "in the snoot," began an expedition to the South Seas to discover tree-climbing fish and brought horses into the City Council chambers.
In the wake of his defeat by Anton Cermak in 1931, the Tribune wrote (and how's this for negative press?): "For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy. ... He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization."
Thompson would make unsuccessful runs for governor in 1936 and for mayor in 1939. On March 19, 1944, he died at the Blackstone Hotel. He was 76 and worth an estimated $2 million. Thousands had delighted in his antics, voted for him, adored and hated him. But as he lay in repose at a North Side funeral chapel, only a handful came to pass by his solid bronze casket, and there was neither, as one reporter noted, "a flower nor a fern to be seen."
Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel appears to have a healthy ego and a flair for drama — that whole dead fish tale — but he will never rival the theatrics of Thompson. None of our 54 previous mayors has come close.
That's fine. We do not need clownish and contentious in our mayors, just creative and capable (honest, too, wouldn't hurt). I don't know if Emanuel has ever visited Oak Woods, but he should. And while there he might wander over to the mausoleum of another mayor, Harold Washington, and heed the words inscribed there: "Remember me as one who tried to be fair."