Book Review: City of Scoundrels

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Title: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Author: Gary Krist

Setting: Chicago, Illinois, July 1919

Themes: Race, Politics, Labor Relations, Crime

My parents moved to Chicago after I graduated, but I would visit them during my summer break from college. It was a great place to be single. The food, the energy, the shopping, the cultural events, and most of all, the people – I loved it. It’s still one of my favorite cities in the world.

So this book really caught my eye. I have read about New York’s history, and about New Orleans, but I didn’t know much about Chicago. This was an eye opener. So many historic Chicago figures are in here. And like the title promises, the events in this brief period really did affect the shape of the city for years to come. The roots of racial tension, of political corruption, of the rise of Al Capone – it’s all here.

The action starts with the first documented air disaster when a hydrogen-filled dirigible crashes into a bank. Yeah, who saw that one coming? But that’s only the beginning. Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson soon has to deal with broiling racial tensions, a looming transit strike, and the widely publicized disappearance of a little girl. By themselves, none of these incidents would have been that difficult to resolve. But with them all occurring in a two week period, the problems just built on one another until there were riots in the streets and hundreds left dead. The press didn’t make matters better, by whitewashing the whole the thing and inflaming the crowds.

I would definitely recommend it if you love Chicago, or if you are interested in politics or 20th century racial tensions. I liked the pictures that were included, as well as the map. They really helped set the scene. Toward the end of the book, I felt a little overwhelmed by so many names to keep track of, but it was worth my time.

 

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