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Chicago Tribune GRAFIC Magazine May 24, 1953
His Exploits Amazed and Shocked the Town for Almost Half a Century, While He and Hinky Dink Kenna Ruled the Infamous Levee
By JAMES DOHERTY
THERE was a time when European visitors to Chicago indicated two things they most wanted to see: the stock yards and that precious pair of aldermen in Chicago’s First ward, “Bathhouse” John Coughlin, and “Hinky Dink” Michael Kenna.
Usually they didn’t have much trouble catching a glimpse of Bathhouse John. He could be found in his famous Silver Dollar saloon on Madison street. In 1895, when the Silver Dollar opened, the former bathhouse rubber was everything a politician of those days should be: ponderous, yet affable, loud-voiced and stupid. While he did not ordinarily wear the mountain green dress suit which won him international attention, he still was Chicago’s best-dressed burgher.
In later years, those who sought out Bathhouse might have been disappointed. He became a gray, fat old man who wore the rumpled, soiled clothes of another era. He peered out at the world thru hurt, suspicious eyes—as if he half suspected the world was laughing at him. But he still was alderman of the First ward when he died on Nov. 11, 1938, after 46 years on the job.
Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna (left) and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin
In the days when I knew him, Bathhouse John had grown mild. He was shy, no debater, no fighter, no hand at solving problems. He was kindly and pleasant to those who were friendly to him. Tho he had made a fortune in politics, he was usually broke.
Coughlin was considered a good family man, personally virtuous. Yet he was the companion and protector of prostitutes, pimps, barrel house bums, and saloonkeepers. He loved racing, but he couldn’t even win when he owned all the horses in a race. He claimed to be a poet, but heartless newsmen long since had disclosed that Bathhouse wrote none of his Poems himself. He did write a song once, “Dear Midnight of Love.”
Altogether, The Bath had the worst possible reputation but that didn’t bother him. Thru the aid of Hinky Dink, the brains of their partnership, Coughlin represented the world’s richest ward with a constituency of some of the city’s leaders in finance, industry, the arts and sciences, as well as the scarlet sisterhood. Coughlin was elected 20 times without a defeat. His organization, run by Hinky Dink, was notorious for its election frauds, its colonization of hoboes who sold their ballot privileges cheaply, the crooked counting of votes illegally cast, and the use of guns, muscle, threats, and terrorism against the decent citizens.
Yet Bathhouse John, many times accused as a “boodler” never was prosecuted for anything. This First ward paragon of inefficiency was hailed as a grand fellow in his ward and at state and national meetings with his fellow Democratic politicians. His friends said he was generous, kind, good to his mother -the jolly sort of fellow who never hurt anybody.
John Coughlin was born in Chicago in 1860. Once, when the Municipal Voters’ league issued a blistering report on him, calling him a grafter unfit for public office, he took offense only at that part of the report that said he was born in Waukegan.
Coughlin went to work when he was 11. One of his early jobs was as a rubber in a Turkish bath. In time he owned a bath at 167 W. Madison st, two doors from the later site of his Silver Dollar saloon.
Mike McDonald, king of the gamblers, was the boss of a big section of Chicago’s Democracy in those days, and he needed husky young fellows like Coughlin, who were legal residents of the ward, didn’t drink too much, and were willing to work. Under his sponsorship, Coughlin became an active First ward Democrat and eventually president of the ward organization.
In 1892, the bosses looked around for an aldermanic candidate who would do exactly as he was told. Coughlin was their man. He was elected to the city council and in time learned there were many rights and privileges, the property of the city, which an alderman could sell at 100 per cent profit to himself. “Stick to the little stuff and never get into trouble,” John was advised. He followed that advice.
John did not seem particularly bright even in the city council of that day, but he saved his political career by joining up with Hinky Dink, a mite of a man who owned a saloon and knew how to think. Each ward had two aldermen at the time, and Hinky Dink joined the council to represent the First.
Kenna gave orders to Bathhouse, developed the protection system which enabled Chicago’s segregated district to flourish. He and Bathhouse John grew rich and infamous.
Coughlin voted as he was told on important city ordinances, but was permitted to amuse himself by introducing his own ordi- nances on trivial matters. He always in- troduced the resolutions designating straw hat day for the city. He introduced measures regulating dress for women, and the height of cemetery walls.
Thruout his life, Bathhouse J o h n yearned to be a poet. He wrote “Dear Midnight of Love” in 1901. The inane, verses were set to music and introduced to Chicago at the Chicago Opera House on Oct. 8 of that year. May De Sousa, later famous as a musical comedy star, made her debut singing Coughlin’s song, assisted by a male chorus of 50 voices.
After that, frequent Coughlin poems appeared in the newspapers: “She Sleeps by the Drainage Canal,” “Why Did They Build Lake Michigan So Wide?” “Ode to a Hod Carrier,” and others. Following his retirement from The Tribune, John Kelley, veteran police reporter, confessed that he had written those so-called poems. Bathhouse John had always been glad to see them in print under his name, and to take the bows.
I “inherited” Bath and Hink from my friend Kelley. Their ward was part of my beat in the days when Al Capone’s mob moved in to take over. There were more than 500 saloons in the ward in those days, plus nearly 100 handbooks permitted to operate there, and what was left of the red-light district. The gang took what it wanted from the ward, allowing Kenna to rule, ostensibly as ward committeeman, while Coughlin continued in the city council
By that time, Coughlin was no longer the handsome, fancy dresser who once a year led the grand march at the scandalous First ward ball. Those dances were a carnival of evil, attracting denizens of the red- light district, who drank and danced with criminals and some so-called respectable men. The last First ward ball had been held in 1914, when it was put out of business by the outraged cries of the newspapers and the reformers.
But Coughlin still lived in the past, remembering the time when he and Hinky Dink helped to prevent a steal of the city s streets by a trar-portation combine—his one real public service. Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. induced Hinky Dink and Bathhouse to take that useful step, and afterward publicly praised them for it. For a few weeks they seemed almost respectable.
Mostly, the days Bathhouse remembered were vicious ones. He and the Hink controled the. magistrate’s court at the old Harrison street police station. This gave them power over and brothel owners. A criminal in trouble could get out of it’ by seeing Coughlin or Hinky Dink. If he was luckless enough to get sentenced to the house of correction, Coughlin or Kenna promptly applied for a pardon for him.
Control of criminals and bums in the First ward gave C Coughlin and Kenna a snug little army of voters. The ward almost always went Democratic, by margins big enough to help: elect a mayor or other city or county officials. Because of this power, the First ward pair had the privilege of selecting candidates for the Municipal court and the state legislature, and they helped pick a congressman or two.
In time, Coughlin and Kenna controled the Republican vote in the First ward, too. Consequently, they had no trouble during Mayor Fred Busse’s Republican administration of 1907-1911, nor from William Hale Thompson, while he was mayor from 1915-1923.
But when Thompson returned to the mayor’s office in 1927, while I was covering the ward, he foolishly decided to take over, with the help of Homer Galpin, then Republican county chairman: They named Ernest Potts as First ward Republican committeeman, to fill a vacancy.
The reaction was what you would expect—but which Thompson and Galpin evidently didn’t. Potts was actually chased out of the ward—intimidated in a manner to disgrace the supposed power supporting him. Mayor Thompson quickly decided to accept the ward s own choice, Daniel Serritella, former president of the Newsboys’ union and an ally of Al Capone, as the First ward-Republican committeeman.
It was my job that year to see Mayor Thompson every day and to write the news he was making. The Potts advance—and retreat—gave me a few items now significant in a historical sense. The episode proved that the Capone gang had captured the Kenna-Coughlin stronghold without fanfare, publicity, or acclaim. Quietly the “Lords of the Levee” were deposed, and Jack Guzik reigned as Al Capone’s pro-consuL Serritella was made state senator in addition to his job as puppet committeeman .
The Capone mob told Democrats as well as Republicans what to do, and they did it. For years, the First ward had almost invariably gone Democratic by big margins. But, in the ’30s, with Capone in control, his friend Serritella had no trouble defeating any Democrat nominated to run against him. So for 12 years, the so-called Republican, Serritella, represented an almost solidly Democratic district in the legislature, thanks to the power of Capone.
In those days, no one paid attention to Coughlin in the council, except, perhaps, when straw hat time was approach- ing. The pudgy alderman enjoyed certain respect in his ward as a one-time great, a good fellow, and a friend of Capone. But the money no longer came in as it once did. The Bath still had his stable of horses, which almost never won, and he had trouble paying the feed bills. Hinky Dink, who preferred stocks and bonds to horses, continued rich, but Bathhouse grew shabbier by the week.
Coughlin continued to take some profit from the insurance agency he established in 1901, at 100 N. La Salle st., across the street from the city halL In the old days this business prospered, but in the Capone era Bathhouse found business dwindling and commissions slim.
In those last years, people who knew him then regarded Bathhpuse as- a rather kindly, confused old gentleman who was made happy if you passed the time of day with him. It was hard to believe that he was the menace who brought down the wrath of the press and decent citizens years before. He died Nov. 11, 1938 and I went to his funeral. Kind words were said of him. He was a man, it was said, who hadn’t made an enemy or lost a friend in twenty years-all he had lost was his wealth. His reputation had improved, somewhat, due to his inactivity and tractability.
While the services were held, the city hall was draped in purple and black. There was a long funeral procession, led by a band. Bathhouse John Coughlin would have liked that.
The Coughlin Ballads
These were written faith tongue in cheek by John Kelley, reporter for the Chicago Evening Herald and Chicago Tribune.
“Dear Midnight of Love” was performed for the first and last time at the Auditorium Theater in October 1899.
Dear Midnight of Love
Dear midnight of love,
Why did we meet?
Dear midnight of love,
Your face is so sweet.
Pure as the angels above,
Surely again we shall speak, Loving only as doves,
Dear midnight of love.”
South Dearborn Street looking north from 22nd Street in the Levee district of Chicago, c. 1911.
Ode to A Bowl of Soup
O, bowl of soup, to thee I lift my voice in gladsome song
nothing can touch ze spot like what ze French call “booyong.”
I like you as mulligatawny, noodles, or consommé.
It cheers me when I see the sign proclaiming “hot soup all day.”
I care note what they call you, you’re just plain soup to me
I break my bread into the bowl to cool it, don’t you see.
Let those who want to die of gout of richer food partake
But give me a bowl of soup like mother used to make
That little sign “Hot Soup All Day” in front of Hink’s saloon
Brings customers for blocks around, especially at noon.
It’s got fried liver skinned to death, and red hots, too, I trow,
Put up a “feed” of good hot soup, and then you’ll catch the “bo.”
I pride myself on being wise upon this free lunch question
Potato pancakes 4 to 8″ are bad for one’s digestion
Saurkraut with spare ribs, fricandeiles, ox joints and all that group
are not to be considered with a bowl of steaming soup.
“How stew on individual plates” does not appeal to me,
and neither does the “business lunch” (which same costs 15c)
I’d rather have one bowl of soup than all the stew in town,
or goulash cooked Hungarian style, with gravy thick and brown
Clam chowder has its devotees, and I’ll admit it’s fine.
Others are fond of “K and K,” but no corned beef in mine.
Just give to me a bowl of soup, and have it seasoned well,
It’s got them all backed off the boards – I tell you what it’s swell.”
She Sleeps at the Side of the Drainage Canal
In her lonely grave she sleeps tonight
at the side of the drainage canal;
Where the whipporwhill calls at the twilight hour
they planted my sweetheart, Sal
Just a mile this side of Willow Springs
not far from the Alton track
there lieth Sal, my dear old pal
But these tears won’t bring her back.
The Hod Carrier
Tis not a ladder of fame he climbs
this rugged man of bricks and mortar
The mason gets six for laying the bricks,
While the carrier gets but two and a quarter.
They’re Tearing up Clark Street Again
Why Did They Make Lake Michigan so Wide
Twas a balmy day in June, and all nature was attune
that two loving hearts across the lake did go.
Said the youth unto the maid, “Stick to me, don’t be afraid,
and married we will be at old St Joe.”
When the boat approached the dock, it was after 3 o’clock
Then a scramble from the decks to get ashore;
Soon the youthful pair were wed, after which the bride let said:
“Won’t you answer me this question I implore:
“Why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?
Look into mine eyes, dear, am I not your bride?
Answer sweetheart, answer, cast me not aside.
Oh why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?”
To Chicago they returned with money she had earned
a flat was furnished fit for any queen.
Persian rugs upon the floor, sofa pillows by the score
still the bride let weeping tears was often seen
She in silence bore her grief, till one day she sought relief
and confided to his nibs her tale of woe.
“Won’t you answer me, I pray, (O, sweetheart, don’t turn away)
The question that I asked at old St. Joe?
“Why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?
This little boon I ask of you, do not turn aside.
To you I gave my love, my all, and yet you’ve never tried
to find out why Lake Michigan was built so wide, so wide.”
Stung by the words his bride let spoke, the lobster hung his head
and while the tears rolled down his cheeks to her he slowly said
“You ask me why Lake Michigan was built so wide, so wide
I must decline to answer you because of family pride.”
Ode to a Lower Berth
Ode to a Bathtub
Some find enjoyment in travel, others in kodaking views;
some take to automobiling in order themselves to amuse.
But for me there is only one pleasure, although you can call me a “dub” –
There’s nothing to my mind can equal a plunge in a porcelain tub.
Some go to ball games for pleasure, others go bobbing for eels.
Some find delight making money, especially in real estate deals.
I care not for ball games or fishing, or money unless to buy grub
But I’d walk forty miles before breakfast to roll in the porcelain tub.
Some take a trolley to Hammond, others the boat to St. Joe
Some can find sport on the golf links with mashies that foosle, I trow.
The trolley and boat and the golf links are not one, two, nine with a rub;
O, what in the world is finer than a dip in the porcelain tub?
Some runs dairy for pleasure, others a violet farm
Some turn their heads to bookbinding, and say it is life dearest charm.
But for dairies or sweet scented posies, or old books I care not a nub;
pass them all up, thank you kindly, for the little old porcelain tub.
UNDER THE TWINKLING STARS
Under the twinkling stars, ‘mid a bower of roses fair
I lost my heart to Gwendolyn that night in June so rare.
We plighted our troth that summer’s eve while gazing up at Mars;
O’, the happiest night of my life was that – under the twinkling stars
She told me that she loved me as I held her hand in mine;
her lips were like to cherries of the Maraschino kind.
I drew her to my bosom, breaking two good cigars
and plucked the cherries from her lips – under the twinkling stars.
I’m Poor but I’m Honest, Goodness Knows.
Why Did They Build the Lovely Lake so Close to the Horrible Shore
Two Thirsts With but a Single Drink
Sept 20, 1906
Chicago Record Herald
Ballad of the Flag
Come, gather round me, baseball fans, while I a tale unfold
Of how Chicago won the flag, the first since days of old,
With Chance, our gallant captain, and his crew of sprightly cubs
We made the other league teams look like Indians dubs.
Th seasonn ppened April 12 at Cincinnati town;
Five games were playd and we took three-Ned Halon’s did frown
Then came the series on home grounds, with cardinals no foes-
The weather was so chilly that the umpires nearly froze.
Four game were played; the cubs took two, which put us in sixth place;
Our college chums, the beaneaters, were leading in the race.
Then came three games with priates bold, of which we “copped’ out two;
Our standing now was six and six-the fans were feeling blue.
By taking three straight from the reds we landed near the top;
And we we grabbed the next three games St. Louis shouted “Stop!” ‘
But the cubs kept climbing upward, a smile on Chance’s face,
And with four we took from Pittsburg we landed in first place.
Next day we lost to pirates-the score was three to two
And as we dropped to second place the giants yelled
By winning two from cardinals and one from Brooklyn’s stars
We mounted to the top again en route to visit Mars.
The trolley dodgers got revenge-the score was five to four
And off the porch we fell again, with New Yorks first once more-.
Then two we took from Brooklyn and one in Quaker town,
Which landed us on top again-we swore we’d ne’er come down.
Two more we grabbed from Philly- the games were played in “Chi”
And then the Quakers got the ball and binged us in the eye.
Then came the series with New York, in which we won the first,
But losing three to “Muggs” McGraw caused him to nearly burst.
This put New York on top again; but only for a day;
By trouncing Boston two to one we jumped and led the way.
The third game of the series, postponed account of rain,
Was how the giants forged ahead and took the lead again.
Next day we met the Bostons and lIsed them for a mop
Which set the giants back again-the cubs once more on top
And from that day we never lost our grip upon the lead,
But kept on going higher, just to show we had the speed .
The giants said they’d eat us when we played them at New “Yawk.”
A statement coincided by the fans of the Polo “pawk.”
Four games were played; the cubs nailed three-oh firemen, save me “child.”
Broadway will ne’er forgive us–we are woolly, also wild .
From that time on ’twas scandalous the way the cubs played ball.
We made the rounds from East to West, defeating one and all.
Such hitting ne’er was seen before-you needn’t take my word.
But awak the New Yawk Clipper if our “Stiney” ain’t a bird.
There’s weeping and there’s wailing up and down Broadway to-night.
There’s gloom at Coney Island-e’en the chowder wants to fight.
Somewhere beyond the Palisades (what, do I hear a sob?)
It’s “Muggsy” and his “has beens” who are hiding from the mob.
Scott Priz says
thanks so much for putting this up. I love the Bath in his glory days so much- just a perfect, wonderful creation of Chicago that is beyond the capabilities of any fiction writer to create.