To understand why things go down in Chicago like they do, read "The Jungle" & "Boss"

The past several weeks have witnessed a powerful, longtime alderman arrested on federal corruption charges; the acquittal of four Chicago cops in a conspiracy trial; and most recently, the lenient sentence handed down by a judge to the officer who shot and killed Laquan Macdonald.

It’s funny but even before Patti Blagojevich chimed in, I was thinking how Rod has already served twice the time in prison than Van Dyke will, and he didn’t kill anybody. And I have no sympathy for Rod. Many people who feel a six-year sentence is far too light for taking a life don’t even realize that with Illinois’s day-for-day “good time” rule, Van Dyke will actually only spend three years behind bars.

(Imagine if the roles were reversed and Macdonald had killed Van Dyke because he felt threatened by Van Dyke. He would be looking at life without parole, or at least an effective life sentence of 60 or more years. At one time he would have gotten the death sentence.)

Back to the matter at hand, any one of the above events by itself might seem troubling even if characteristic of the Chicago Way. But coming in rapid succession, they surely have some less familiar with the workings of our fine city shaking their heads and going, “what’s up with this place anyway?”

Not one of these events surprised me, even if they disgusted me. To fully understand why things go down the way they do in Chicago and Cook County, it’s enormously enlightening to read two celebrated books, one published over a century ago and the other nearly a half-century ago.


“The Jungle” was published by Upton Sinclair in 1906 and depicts the hardships endured by an immigrant family living and working at the Chicago Stockyards at the turn of the 20th century.  Most people associate the book with the meat industry reforms it triggered, and indeed its description of horrific slaughterhouse conditions prompted Congress to pass the Federal Meat Inspection Act. But Sinclair, a Socialist, had really hoped to inspire reforms in the appalling working conditions experienced by the laborers; he was less concerned with food safety and dismayed that the workers’ plight was overlooked by readers.

When I read the book a few years ago, my interest was mostly in the animal welfare and environmental aspects of it and the treatment of hogs and cows. I was not expecting to get such an education in Chicago’s corrupt political history.

It’s been some years since I read "The Jungle" so some of the details are fuzzy, but man oh man, if you think Chicago is bad now, you’re in for a shock. The powerful ward bosses, politicians in bed with unscrupulous businessmen and landlords, shady cops on the take, the graft, it’s all there.

And so Jurgis got a glimpse of the high class criminal world of Chicago. The city, which was owned by an oligarchy of business men, being nominally ruled by the people, a huge army of graft was necessary for the purpose of effecting the transfer of power. Twice a year, in spring and fall elections,.. tens of thousands of votes were bought for cash. And this army of graft had to be maintained the year round. The leaders and organizers were maintained by the business men directly— aldermen and legislators by means of bribes, party officials out of the campaign funds, lobbyists and corporation lawyers in the form of salaries, contractors by means of jobs, labor union leaders by subsidies, and newspaper proprietors and editors by advertisements.

There was the police department, the fire and water departments, the civil list; and for the horde who could find no room in these, there was the world of vice and crime. The law forbade Sunday drinking, and this had delivered the saloon keepers into the hands of the police and made an alliance between them necessary. The law forbade prostitution and this brought the madames into the combination. It was same with the gambling house keeper and the pool man and the same with any other man or woman who had a means of getting “graft” and was willing to pay a over share of it; the seller of adulterated milk, stale fruit and diseased meat; the proprietor of unsanitary tenements; the fake doctor and the usurer; the prizefighter and professional slugger; the procurer; the white slave agent… All of these agencies of corruption were banded together and leagued in blood brotherhood with the politician and the police; more often than not they were one and the same person— the police captain would own the brothel he pretended to raid, and the politician would open his headquarters in his saloon.

“Hinkydink” or “Bathhouse John” or others of that ilk were proprietors of the most notorious dives in Chicago and also the “gray wolves” of the city council, who gave away the streets of the city to the business men; and those who patronized their places were the gamblers and prizefighters who set the law at defiance, and the burglars and hold-up men who kept the whole city in terror. On election day all these powers of vice and crime were one power; they could tell within one percent what the vote of their district would be, and they could change it at an hour's notice.*

Keep in mind, this was in 1905.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

Fair warning, this book is not for the faint of heart in its depictions of human suffering. But I recommend it for anyone who needs to understand just how far back all this goes.


The second book is “Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago,” published in 1971 by the late, great Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko. It’s about the first Mayor Daley and how he slowly worked his way up through the political clubs and committees of the south side to become the second-most powerful politician in America after the president.

Daley not only ruled Chicago with an iron fist, he single-handedly decided who would become Illinois senator, who would be a state legislator, who would be Cook County state’s attorney, what judges sat on the bench, and just about everything else.

It’s required reading for a full understanding of the Chicago Democratic Machine, patronage politics, cronyism, nepotism and the incestuous entwining of the mayor’s office, city and county executive departments, the city council, the Cook County courts, the police department, and political committees.

Basically, there are no checks and balances because everybody knows everybody and everybody owes everybody. And everybody’s got their hand in the pot. Effectively, all of these bodies are really one giant entity.

Hence, the machine.

The most shocking thing is how nothing has changed in nearly a half-century.

All this stuff is nothing new to born and raised Chicagoans, but for those like me who migrated here from other parts of the country, these classic books are eye-opening, and anyone who hasn't already would do well to put them on their reading list.


*The Jungle, copyright 1920 by Upton Sinclair; Harvard University; pp. 302-03.

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