28 July 2010

Good Times: The First Ward Ball

By Lorelie Brown

Corruption, booze and Chicago.

Nope, I'm not talking about Al Capone. Chicago was a happening place long before him.

Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin were aldermen for Chicago's First Ward. The First Ward was also known as the Levee, on the south side of the city. Coughlin was a big, brash man who apparently wore very brightly colored clothes and was elected as alderman in 1892. (And he kept up the habit of writing bad poetry. Really bad. Who titles a poem "She Sleeps by the Drainage Canal" in all seriousness?) Kenna was his exact opposite, small and quiet, but he still won election in 1897.

Hinky Dink Kenna (left) and Bathhouse John Coughlin (right).

The Levee wasn't exactly the most posh area of Chicago, not by far. In fact, it was the red light district, where thieves, pickpockets and brawlers roamed. The prostitutes ranged from the cheap tricks of "Bed Bug Row" to the high-class birds of the Everleigh Sisters' establishment, where a bottle of wine was $12 downstairs or $15 in the room. (I promise, it's more money than it sounds like these days.)

So when it came time for fundraising, they did it up right.

Kenna, Coughlin and every other official of the area sold tickets to the First Ward Ball, to be held in December. Buying a ticket was good. Buying a pack of fifty tickets was even better. Not buying tickets could leave a saloon owner or brothel madam to all sorts of harassment--from the police, of course. Ah, extortion at its best. Starting in 1896, the First Ward Ball only got wilder and wilder until 1908, the last year.

But the fun really started at the actual ball. Thousands of people crammed into the Coliseum. At midnight Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John Coughlin led the entire crowd--well, those who weren't too drunk to stand--in a procession around the floor as the band played "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here."

After that, things hit a fevered pitch. Madams handed out free champagne and the bottles were stacked in pyramids--until they became too tall and began to topple. Drunk men ripped at the clothes of unaccompanied women. A thirty-foot bar crumpled under yet another brawl. People dressed in bathing suits, fine gowns and costumes--everything from clowns to Indians--and one notorious whore wore a nun's habit. In the corner, another prostitute whipped willing men's naked butts with a crop.

By 1908, the last year, 30,000 people were crammed in a venue meant for half that number. And every single one of them were determined to get their drink on. Women passed out from the heat (and the booze) and were crowd-surfed to the corner, where they were simply piled in stacks.

I mean seriously. This was a political fundraiser.

But it was also the last of its kind. Reformers had been after Mayor Busse to put a halt to the spectacle, but he'd resisted. The Coliseum was the victim of a bombing December 12, 1908, the day before the ball. It didn't hold them up that year, but next year they were done for. Mayor Busse gave in to pressure from the reformers to deny a liquor license and without alcohol there wasn't much left.

Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John held on to power a little while longer, despite being forced to less dramatic methods of fundraising. Eventually though, they retired. Other men swept in and took their place, including Al Capone. But he'd never hold a torch to the vivid descriptions of the First Ward Ball, at least not in my eyes.