In mid-July of 1919, the Wingfoot, a dirigible owned by the Goodyear company was making tests flights along Chicago’s lakefront. On the third flight, the pilot decided to take the airship over the downtown area. Not too far from the lakefront, over Chicago’s financial district, flames began to shoot out of the engines. The pilot told his passengers to jump, and took his own advice, landing on the roof of a nearby building. Not all the passengers were so fortunate, nor were the people in the bank beneath the burning airship. The now-flaming dirigible fell onto the roof of a bank, shattered the skylight and fell into the bank, crushing or incinerating those inside. Over the next twelve days, as an inquiry was launched into the air disaster, a young girl went missing and was eventually discovered to have been brutally murdered, race riots claimed hundreds of victims, and all transit workers went on strike, crippling the city. And the mayor went on vacation.
City of Scoundrels is an engaging account of an almost two-week period in the city’s history when everything that could go wrong did. It’s a story of the political machine (Still very much a force in Chicago politics.) and how it dealt with cumulative disasters. It’s also intriguing because I’ve lived in this city for sixty years and had never heard of any of the events, not even the Wingfoot disaster which predated the Hindenburg by almost twenty years. Kudos to Gary Krist for chronicling it and the events which followed and helped to change the face of Chicago.
Krist’s prose is tight and smooth which makes the social and political analysis easy to read and assimilate. This is, after all, a book about how the political institutions of the city functioned (or failed to) in a perfect storm of disaster and social unrest. It could have been dry; it isn’t. It’s an immediate, involving story, and if you have any interest at all in how cities are shaped, and in Chicago in particular, I highly recommend “City of Scoundrels.”