Back to Notorious Chicago
Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna (20 August 1858 – 9 October 1946) was Alderman, and then Committeeman, of Chicago’s First Ward from 1897 to 1946. The diminutive Kenna began his career as a newsboy in 1868, and eventually purchased a loop newsstand that became exceedingly successful.
In the late 1800s, Hinky Dink purchased a tavern on Clark Street called The Workingman’s Exchange, where he traded food and alcohol for votes. Kenna was elected Alderman in 1897, when he teamed with fellow First Ward Alderman (each ward had two Aldermen until 1923) “Bathhouse” John Coughlin (August 15, 1860 – November 11, 1938) to create a powerful political machine in what was then called The Levee District, the area just north of 22nd Street along the east bank of the Chicago River.
Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John meted out favors and indulgences in return for power, without any regard for morality or propriety and were called “The Lords of the Levee.” The two also led the Gray Wolves of Chicago.
By the early years of the 20th Century, the Levee had become a haven for brothels and taverns, and the First Ward’s amoral fiefdom had crossed the line into a veritable pageant of political corruption. Each year, the pair would hold a lavish ball for the prostitutes, gamblers, bribing businessmen, and shady characters of their district, raising as much as $50,000 in tribute to their protection.
The first First Ward Ball, held at the 7th Regiment Armory on South Wentworth Avenue in 1896, had attracted a wild mix of society thrill seekers, police captains, politicians, prostitutes and gamblers. To say the first 1st Ward Ball, was a success would be an understatement. As soon as invitations were issued, brewers, wine merchants and distillers offered supplies of liquor at discount prices. Waiters, anticipating huge tips, eagerly paid $5 each for the right to serve at the event. Policemen and politicians came and mingled with pickpockets and common criminals. Prostitutes, in scanty but expensive costume gowns, arrived with police escorts. At the stroke of midnight the corpulent Coughlin–attired in a green dress suit, mauve vest, pale pink gloves, yellow pumps and silken top hat and flanked by Minna and Ada Everleigh, the brothel queens–led the ball`s grand march. All the business houses are here, all the big people.
The first ball`s take, mostly from the sale of drinks: some $25,000.
Editorial cartoon from The Chicago Tribune, 1908 by John T. McCutcheon
The Ball was referred to as an “annual underworld orgy”. It was required that every prostitute, pimp, pickpocket and thief had to buy at least one ticket, while the owners of brothels and saloons had to purchase large blocks of them. The madams usually had their own boxes, where they could rub shoulders with city officials and politicians.
After the end of the charity gatherings, Coughlin and Kenna took responsibility for throwing the annual affair. It grew larger every year until the two aldermen were making as much as $50,000 from the party. They held the ball at the Chicago Coliseum and after one spectacle; the Tribune wrote that “if a great disaster had befallen the Coliseum last night, there would not have been a second story worker, a dip or pug ugly, porch climber, dope fiend or scarlet woman remaining in Chicago.”
In later years the ball proved so popular it had to be held in the larger confines of the Coliseum on South Wabash Avenue, where thousands danced and drank into the night. Fifteen thousand attended the 1903 Ball at the Coliseum.
The 1907 First Ward Ball was perhaps the most widely reported and for this reason, seemed to raise the most ire among the various reform movements in the city. By the time, the ball opened that year, there were 20,000 people jammed into the Coliseum. One reporter counted two bands, 200 waiters and 100 policemen at the ball and estimated that 20,000 guests drank 10,000 quarts of champagne and 35,000 quarts of beer.
One newspaper reported that there were so many drunks inside that when one would pass out, they could not even fall to the floor. In addition, women who fainted were passed over the heads of the crowd to the exits. As the event opened, a procession of Levee prostitutes marched into the building, led by Bathhouse John, with a lavender cravat and a red sash across his chest. Authors Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan described the parade: “On they came, madams, strumpets, airily clad jockeys, harlequins, Diana’s, page boys, female impersonators, tramps, pan handlers, card sharps, mountebanks, pimps, owners of dives and resorts, young bloods and ‘older men careless of their reputations’…”
This grand march was essentially a conga-line, twenty persons wide and including thousands of followers snaking their way back and forth around the dance floor, while thousands more sat in boxes above the floor, cheering and shouting. Like a Brazilian carnival, the marchers included a wild representation of the excesses of the underworld; women dressed scandalously in bathing suits, bloomers, and slit-cut dresses, men dressed as women, and everyone wore an elaborate and sometimes vile mask. All were on their way – if not already there – to a state of inebriation. Coughlin himself was always attired in one of his world-famous over-the-top suits; for the 1900 ball, he wore a green swallowtail coat and lavender trousers, a white silk waistcoat, brocaded with heliotrope rosebuds and saffron carnations, accompanied by pink gloves and a silk hat. As one Protestant minister and Ball critic later put it, Coughlin appeared “like Satan at the head of the hosts of the damned, leading the grand march of vice and degeneracy.”
At this point, the party really got started as women draped themselves over railings and ordered men to pour champagne down their throats. “The girls in peekaboo waists, slit skirts, bathing suits and jockey costumes relaxed and tripped to the floor where they danced wildly and drunkenly … drunken men sought to undress young women and met with few objections …” This seems to also be the first mention of Chicago’s “drag queens” of the era too and reformers later described the antics of these men in women’s costumes as “unbelievably appalling and nauseating.”
Even though there had been 100 policemen detailed to the party, there were only eight arrests and one conviction — that of Bernard Dooley, who was fined for entering the party without paying! Hinky Dink Kenna later called the party a “lallapalooza” and added that “Chicago ain’t no sissy town!”
The 1908 ball made that affair look tame. During the course of the evening, revelers slopped up 10,000 quarts of champagne and 30,000 quarts of beer. Riotous drunks stripped off the costumes of unattended young women. A madam named French Annie stabbed her boyfriend with a hat pin.
By 1908, the First Ward Ball had become so brazen and notorious that newspapers from around the country reported on the open display of debauchery in America’s fastest-growing city. And reformers, concerned about Chicago’s reputation, began to pressure political leaders to put an end to the annual celebration of Chicago’s political corruption.
On December 13, 1908, a bomb detonated at the Chicago Coliseum, where the First Ward Ball was to be held less than two weeks later. Hundreds of windows in the area were broken, and two workers preparing for the event were feared buried in rubble. But the event went on as planned. Sustained public pressure prompted Chicago Mayor Fred Busse to put an end to the soiree the following year.
Finally, on December 10, 1909, the city revoked the liquor license for the 1909 event, causing Ald. Coughlin to write the shortest of all his poems:
On the date of the 1909 Ball, Coughlin and Kenna instead held a sober concert at the Coliseum, in which a classical orchestra plodded through the William Tell overture, then selections from popular musical comedies. Only 2,500 attended, and most of these only for a short while, until they could be sure they had been seen by one of the Aldermen. Instead of an enormous dance hall and a grand march, the Coliseum was filled with thousands of wooden chairs, nailed to the floor. The 1909 “Ball” ended at 11:00 p.m.
Chicago’s Eyes “Wide Open”
Press Exposé, Official Blackmail, Corrupt Police, Chicago Public Aware, Protected Vices, “Legal” Gambling
Illustrated by W. A. Rogers
5 Feb 1898
Chicago Tribune December 10, 1907
All previous “orgies” were eclipsed by the annual First ward democratic ball last night, the one that provides John Coughlin the money to pay his campaign expenses next spring.
If everybody had taken a long breath along about midnight the walls of-the Coliseum must have collapsed, for there easily were 20,000 people in the building then and the west side elite were just beginning to arrive. There may have been more yet in the drinking parlors in the basement or tucked away under the eaves of the building, but it was impossible for any statistician to make his way through the crowd.
Just before It became necessary to send a hurry up call for champagne, Ald. John expressed himself as pleased with the success of the great social function that doesn’t need any press agent. He said as he came up to the box where they were handing out badges:
This Is the greatest ever. I am delighted with the social success achieved by the Flist Ward Democratic club this evening. The hall seats 14,000, and you can see they are standing up In rows back of the seats in the gallery.
Aldermen and Congressmen There.
Every alderman is here except those who are sick abed and we’ve got two congressmen on the floor now. Mayor H. L. Davis of Kewanee, who is one of the distinguished guests, has just sent in a request for two more floor badges. Let him have them.
Aid.. Kenna, when seen in another part of the floor where the crowd was thickest, said:
It is far ahead of anything I saw in Paris during my recent European tour. There Is nothing like it in the world. Could any other social function in Chicagq attract a crowd like this? Not on your life. What are you having?
Five Bars Are Kept Busy.
There were two bands, 200 waiters, 100 “coppers,” 3S,000 quarts of beer, 10,000 quarts of champagne before they sent for reinforcements, and a wagon load of cigars done up in manila envelopes, so the waiters wouldn’t soil them. There were the three separate bars in the annex where they had seventy large kegs of beer, another bar In the basement, and one in the northeast part of the building. It was great. No one would have thought there was any financial stringency.
In the boxes champagne was the favorite trouble chaser. In some filled with women wearing fine clothes and diamonds the trick seemed to be to get as many empty champagne bottles on the table in the quickest possible time. Quite lively contests ensued before the edges of the tables were reached.
The promenade resembled a football scrimmage and the pressure was enough to flatten out your cigaret case. Nobody could get near enough to the dancing floor to see more than the upper part of the dancers, which caused severe criticism of the management and the ill breeding of the shovers. In the gallery It was not so to secure an unobstructed view, but here, too, there was criticism because thc floor was so far away and the lights did not seem strong.
Long Gowns Not in Good Form.
The costumes worn by the dancers were of varying degrees of richness, but all cut on the same general plan. For instance, not more than one or two of the 3,000 or 4,000 feminine dancers were hampered by long skirts, it being considered bad form to wear anything that would collect the germs from the floor. Owing to the immense crowd It was exceedingly warm in the Coliseum, but none of the dancers was heard to complain of the heat, though a few said they were thirsty.
Congressman “Tim” Sullivan of New York, who was inveigled into attending, said there was nothing in his town that would compare with the ball and he was of the impression that there never would be, now the people were getting so strict as to shut down on Sunday theaters.
It is figured the receipts of the ball will be not far from $30,000, not counting what the waiters grabbed off In tips.
Chicago Examiner, December 15, 1908
By the Rev.R. Keene Ryan
From the standpoint of those two “Lords of the Underworld,” Kenna and Coughlin. the notorious First Ward ball was a success. The crowd that packed the Coliseum far beyond its normal capacity was a record breaking one, even for this annual orgy, and the promoters were content.
It was the occasion of the eleventh annual insult, to the people of Chicago that is, to those who remained away.
Rather than proving a deterrent to the people to attend, the recent agitation against the ball seemed to have made them all the more eager to gain admission, for there were fully five thousand trying to gain admission at midnight.
On the interior scenes took place that beggar description.
Young Girls and Old Men
The balconies were packed with an eager throng that seemed fascinated by the scenes that were transpiring on the floor beneath. Out on the ballroom young girls in thin and scantly attire, masked and disguised in every conceivable manner, were dancing with half drunken men, whose actions were highly questionable, to put it mild.
Many of these women that I noticed closely seemed hardly out of their girlhood days, while many of the men appearedold enough to have been their grandfathers.
In other instances boys, beardless and unquestionably not yet attained their majority, were the companions of old and cunning women.
All Rush to Barrooms
At the close of every dance a rush was made to the barrooms beneath, where scenes of the vilest vulgarity took place.
Here Isaw men and women throw aside all semblance of modesty and self-respect, and give themselves over to the wild, unruly spirit of the time and place.
It was, down in these basement saloons, underneath the ballroom floor, that I witnessed scenes too frightful for publication— scenes free for all to witness who cared to do so.
The promoters of this saturnalia of vice had solemnly promised the city authorities that if permitted to give their annual orgy they -would not permit boys or girls under ago to enter the Coliseum, but I am prepared to make oath that I saw buys and girls in these basement saloons underneath the Coliseum who ought to have been at home in bed, for they certainly were not of lawful age.
Young Girl Becomes Helpless,
One Instance will convey to the people of Chicago some pleas of the character of young boys and girls permitted in the Coliseum and allowed to go upon the ballroom floor and to drink at the basement bars.
Under the stairway nn the east side of the building at one of the little round tables placed there for the use of the dancers, I spotted a youug girl of apparent respectability. She was with an older woman and they were accompanied by two men. mere boys. They all began drinking and while I was standing there, unable in move on account of the dense crowd, this young girl became so drunk that she rolled under the table and had to be taken out of the hall by a side door.
While in this condition she was the object of the laughs and jeers of the crowd that was sweeping by.
Others Made Hysterical.
In another instance two young girls were caught in the dense crowds that were circling around the hall and were made hysterical by the crush that they were subjected to.
The brutality and indecency of the men toward the women who were caught in the crush was alone argument enough why such au institution as the First Wall ball should not be permitted by the people of this city.
Last night’s exhibition, with its attendant evil influences, should be suppressed. Never again should the people of this city permit such an orgy to disgrace and befoul its name, carrying as it does sorrow to count-less numbers of innocent and unsuspecting girls and boys who, through idle curiosity, are attracted there and forever dishonored by associations made.