Chicago Scandals: Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It

By John F. Hogan, author of Chicago Shakedown: The Ogden Gas Scandal

Within less than four decades, four Illinois governors were sent to the federal penitentiary.  Democrats Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, and Rod Blagojevich, and Republican George Ryan were all indicted on various charges. Blagojevich, who remains incarcerated, was the first Democrat elected governor of Illinois since Kerner forty years earlier.

                No Chicago mayor has endured the same fate, and there seems to be no blanket explanation for the discrepancy. It certainly can’t be due to the “pristine” environment at City Hall and the Cook County Building. According to a study by the University of Illinois Chicago, more than 1,500 elected or appointed government officials in northern Illinois were found guilty of criminal activity during the Kerner-to-Blagojevich years. Among them were thirty Chicago aldermen, nearly one-third of whom were in the City Council during that period, and whose offenses usually involved corruption. Why have no mayors made the list in more than 180 years?  In the case of some, to quote Mae West, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

Let’s take a look at some of the controversies that swirled around just three of the city’s chief executives:

William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson has long been considered the poster boy for mayoral shenanigans. First elected in 1915, Big Bill declared that, “The crooks had better move out of Chicago before I am inaugurated!” Not only did they not move out, they solidified their grip, and in the years ahead, Republican Thompson forged an alliance with the biggest crook of all---Al Capone.

                According to Chicago authors Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan, “Capone gangsters roamed the corridors of City Hall, collaring aldermen with requests for favors and threatening those who refused to vote their way,” during Thompson’s mayoral tenure. Big Bill even put Capone associate Daniel Serritella in charge of the city department that oversaw weights and measures in commercial establishments, including grocery stores. Serritella doubled as Capone’s eyes and ears at City Hall while he enriched himself, federal officials claimed. In 1931, he was convicted of conspiracy to defraud consumers of $54 million, but the verdict was overturned by the Illinois Appellate Court.

                Thompson opted not to seek reelection in 1923 and was succeeded by the scrupulously honest William E. Dever. When Big Bill reclaimed the mayor’s office in 1927, he vowed to reopen places of business closed by the Dever administration and “open 10,000 new ones.” Considering that the only businesses Dever closed were speakeasies, the message was clear: happy days were here again, especially for Capone.

                Historians have estimated that Capone’s campaign contributions to Thompson ranged from $100,000 to $260,000. A Thompson election opponent pegged the total at $160,000 for the 1927 race and a like amount four years later. When Big Bill died in 1944, he was worth $2.1 million, most of it in cash, stocks, and bonds stuffed in two safety deposit boxes.

                The U.S. Department of Justice maintained a file on Thompson but never moved against him.  The feds were able to send Scarface Al away for tax evasion - why not Big Bill? Chicago watchers have been left to wonder ever since.


“Tony Cermak is the biggest crook that ever ran for mayor!” Coming from Big Bill Thompson, that was quite a mouthful, but the remark typified the desperate campaign Thompson waged in 1931 to hold onto the mayor’s office. The race presented a watershed in Chicago politics as Big Bill faded into history as the last Republican to occupy the job, and Anton J. “Tony” Cermak began a Democratic run that has continued through his successors to this day. Cermak, a tough West Side Bohemian who once operated a push-cart, also shook up the local Democratic Party. He supplanted the longtime Irish political hierarchy with a broad coalition of ethnic groups. He made enemies.

                At the time of his election as mayor, Cermak was serving as president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, a powerful position sometimes referred to as the mayor of Cook County. Good government crusaders claimed that graft and favoritism tainted the purchase of land for the forest preserves and the Cook County Criminal Courts building. There were rumors that Cermak himself had profited handsomely from the land sales. Wasn’t it curious, cynics asked, that the new courthouse was located at 26th and California, the heart of Cermak’s stronghold but difficult to reach and far removed from city, county, and federal offices downtown, including the old courthouse? No evidence of wrongdoing ever surfaced.

                Whispers of underworld connections followed him during his tenure in both offices, but again, no evidence was forthcoming. A private anti-crime organization released a report that stated “the same old alliance” between crime and politics that flourished under Thompson remained strong under Cermak, but it offered no examples.

                The most sensational allegations surrounding Tony Cermak concerned his death. The mayor, who had gone to Miami Beach in April 1933 to unwind after the Chicago municipal elections, intended to see newly-inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President was preparing to address an outdoor gathering when a shot rang out. Cermak, who was standing nearby, was mortally wounded. The official report on the attack was that the mayor was accidentally shot by a deranged anarchist, Giuseppe Zangara, who was aiming at Roosevelt. An unofficial version, however, held that Zangara was a hit man sent by Capone to settle a score with Cermak. One motive cited was retaliation for the wounding of Capone’s deputy Frank Nitti by a member of the mayor’s personal police detail. 

                Tony Cermak’s words after the shooting have proved just as controversial.  A widely quoted comment, relayed by a single wire service reporter, had the mayor telling the President, “I am glad it was me instead of you.” Everyone else within hearing distance swore that Cermak said, “Where the hell was that goddamn bodyguard?”


More recently, the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley was rocked by a series of blows that struck at the core of his seemingly invincible machine. In 2006, Daley’s longtime patronage chief, Robert Sorich was imprisoned with several others for corruption. Sorich and his associated rigged various tests to fill city jobs with politically connected, but otherwise unqualified or under-qualified applicants, to the exclusion of honest contenders. Daley denied knowledge of the scheme.

                During the same period, forty-eight persons, thirty-three of which were from Daley’s home ward, were convicted in a scheme by which well-connected trucking companies were hired by the city to do virtually nothing while municipal trucks stood idle. The program cost the city $40 million a year. The Chicago Sun-Times called the program “a hotbed of payoffs, sweetheart deals and questionable ties to city workers and the mob.” Daley denied knowledge of the scheme.