December 31, 2008

Bribed With a Tuber

Illinois politics have cast a big shadow this year, so I suppose it's an auspicious time to write about the Chicago politician known as “Bathhouse John.”

Properly known as John Coughlin, he started his 45-year career as a Chicago city council member in 1892. In his city district, Bathhouse John represented Chicago's most impressive array of gamblers, bar-keeps, prostitutes, pimps, and safecrackers.

John (right) was colorful in personality and raiment, commonly wearing bright green waistcoats, hand embroidered shirts with hand-embroidered zoo animals, and pants that came in colors like “gas-house blue.”

Bathtub John’s constant companion was his sidekick and crony Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna (left). The two of them were variously known as the “Lords of the Levee” and the “Gray Wolves,” and together they controlled both the police and gangsters like Al Capone. (Below, a detail from a 1908 Chicago Tribune cartoon titled “Grand March at Bathhouse John's Ball.”)
How crooked were these guys? Bathhouse John once strongly objected to a newspaper article because it incorrectly identified his birthplace. The same article described John as a thief. He did not dispute that part. Even worse, in his office, Johns kept sacks of bread and potatoes to hand out to visiting voters. (Yay! I was bribed with a tuber!)

Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink would ride to the horse-racing track in the front seat of John’s limousine because the back seat was often filled with feed for John’s horses. The steeds had names like Official, Sub-Committee, and Honored Sir.

But best of all, Bathhouse John liked to write songs, including the lovely tune, “Ode to a Bowl of Soup.” (Seriously. Oh, and about that nickname: Bathhouse John had once worked as a masseur, or a “rubber” in the parlance of the day, in a Turkish bath.)
My sources are here.

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