This weekend Chicago is hosting the Lollapalooza music festival in Grant Park. The festival’s name comes from an annual party that was hosted by the city’s corrupt politicians and featured an orgy of excess by the leaders and denizens of Chicago’s vice districts at the turn of the century. Basically, my great grandparents’ Lollapalooza was way more hardcore than what I’ve been going to since high school.
“It’s a lollapalooza! All the business houses are here, all the big people. Chicago ain’t no sissy town.” – Alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna on his annual First Ward Ball.
The ball was a political fundraiser where respectable Chicago society got rowdy with madams, pimps, scarlet women and other shady characters of the city’s vice districts. Between 1896 and 1909 the First Ward Ball, also called “The Derby,” was held at the Chicago Coliseum at 15th and Wabash. At the time the 1st ward included the old “Custom House Place” vice district and later the infamous 22nd and Dearborn “Levee” vice district, home of the world famous Everleigh Club.
In order to remain open the madams, gambling-house owners and saloon-keepers needed protection from Chicago police. Thus, the First Ward Ball was one of the means by which Kenna and fellow 1st Ward Alderman “Bathouse” John Coughlin received protection payments from establishments and rackets in their ward’s vice districts.
Together these two 1st ward aldermen (back then Chicago’s wards had two aldermen each) were dubbed the “Lords of the Levee.”
Every employee of a house of ill-repute or gambling den, every robber, pickpocket, safe-cracker, streetwalker and every bartender, every madam and pimp was required to buy tickets to the ball, which cost between 50 cents and $1, if they wanted to stay open. Annually the ball generated about $25,000 each year for the two aldermen’s political war chests.
And so every major underworld figure of the 1890s and 1900s attended the ball, which was able to skirt the 12:00 a.m closing laws because it was a “charity event” and go on to the wee hours of the next day. The guest list included the likes of Ike Bloom, “Big Jim” Colosimo, “Big Jim” O’Leary, the Everleigh Sisters and their arch nemesis Vic Shaw. Additionally the city’s top businessmen and political figures from Chicago and Washington, including Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, attended the ball as well.
The first ball, held at the 7th Regiment Armory on South Wentworth Avenue in 1896, attracted a wild mix of society thrill seekers, police captains, politicians, prostitutes and gamblers and was a low-key party compared to the 1908 ball. At the latter party goers drank 10,000 quarts of champagne and 30,000 quarts of beer. Riotous drunks stripped off the costumes of unattended young women and a madam named French Annie stabbed her boyfriend with a hat pin.
Legend has it that British labor leader John Burns called late 19th century Chicago “a pocket edition of hell” when he first arrived for a tour of the city. When his visit was nearly over a reporter asked if Burns had changed his opinion of The Windy City.
“Yes, I have,” Burns said. “My present opinion is that hell is a pocket edition of Chicago.”
For more detailed information on the ball and the city’s vice districts check out: