Chicago in the 1930s

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Chicago gangsters of the 1930s. Left and center: Al Capone. Right: Roger Touhy

Chicago in the 1930s was one of the major centers of activity in the United States. 1930s Chicago is strongly associated with gangsters and the mafia and speakeasies to provide alcohol following Prohibition. A dark and gloomy time during the Great Depression, many people in the city were unemployed and became dependent on food hand outs in order to get by; many turned to crime as a way to deal with poverty. Many struggling musicians came to the city and found solace in the blues and jazz in the clubs of the city as a way to cope with their grievances. Numerous southern blues and jazz musicians made a name for themselves in the city as they had done in the 1920s. The theater scene in Chicago thrived during this period.


Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone, 1931

During the early days of Great Depression, musicians from the southern region migrated to the north to Chicago and the Chicago blues absorbed them into their fold, allowing their ensembles to become very popular. The originality of each musician was brought to the fore in these ensembles.[1]

In 1930, President Herbert Hoover's work on behalf of Chicago's "Al Capone" problem began to "get legs." A Washington, D.C., special prosecutor, Dwight H. Green, was appointed to Chicago to capture the Chicago gangsters and send them to jail, particularly Al Capone. Green had access to all the government ammunition needed for the job. However, Capone was aware of the secret plans of the Federal government with men identified to execute the job by men like Frank J. Wilson, a U.S. Secret Service agent, and Elmer Irey, the IRS head. Capone had sounded and fixed the people who mattered by sending his assigning a legal team to the nation's capitol for executing the deal. Yet, while the money was taken, it bought Capone no influences at all in Washington, D.C. This did not stop the IRS investigations and even his Capone underlings Frank Nitti (Francesco Nitto) were booked by the IRS and sentenced to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine. Capone's brother Ralph (Raffaele Capone, Sr.), was also indicted for three years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary and a $10,000 fine. On 17 October 1931, Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion following a four-day trial in Chicago. Brebes failed to help him. However, Capone had "cut a deal" with the prosecutors during the pre-trial to drop 5,000 "Prohibition" violations that could have "nailed him" for 25,000-years-to-life if convicted on all the charges. And, it has been said that Capone underling Gus Winkler was prevented by other Capone men from freeing him outright, with $100,000 upfront (a tax payment, not a bribe) to the federal taxman.[2]

On 24 October 1931, one week after he was convicted of tax evasion, Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison (first, Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, then Alcatraz Island), fined $50,000 and charged $30,000 in court costs. While awaiting transfer to Atlanta to serve his sentence, Capone sat in Cook County Jail, where it was reported that he "had all the booze and women he wanted".[3]

Some time during 1931, a group of mostly college graduates in the Chicago area, called the "College Kidnappers," embarked on the bold step of kidnapping low-level, area gangsters and held them for ransom. Allegedly, the Klutas gang, named after leader Theodore "Handsome Jack" Klutas, took in a half-million dollars from these kidnappings in about a two-year span.[4]

The Merchandise Mart was completed for Marshall Field & Co. in 1930. The $32 million, 4.2 million square foot (390,000 m²) building was the world's largest commercial building.[5] It was sold it to Joseph P. Kennedy in 1945. The Adler Planetarium opened on 10 May 1930, through a gift from local merchant Max Adler.[6] It was the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. Adler was quoted as saying, "Chicago has been striving to create, and in large measure has succeeded in creating, facilities for its citizens of today to live a life."[6] The Shedd Aquarium opened soon afterwards in May 1930.[7] In 1931, and again the following year, the city hosted the International Workers' Olympics.[8]

At the beginning of 1930 and at beginning of 1940, the population of Chicago was 3,376,438 and 3,396,808 respectively.[9]

The Doorway to Hell (1930) was a movie made in 1930 based on the theme of organizing the various gangs in Chicago so that the gangsters do not destroy each other. It was nominated for the Best Writing, Original Story for Rowland Brown, in 1931.[10]


In 1932, the Chicago democrats got into power and Franklin Roosevelt achieved 98% votes from the twenty Fourth ward. Eddy Kelly was elected mayor and the Chicago democrats, who ruled so overwhelmingly that they held office for nearly 70 years, until the end of the 1900s. They played a key role in the elections of Harry Truman and John F Kennedy. The Chicago democrats could deliver the votes in every other way. In 1932, Chicago as a city was about 100 years old since it was established by Jean Baptiste Du Sable, and had developed into a massive city with a huge population of 3.4 million in 1932.

In 1932, the Chicago school system was also in tatters and the banking industry went into a tail spin as many of the banks who had invested in the electric company "The Common Wealth Edison" busted during the Great Depression as the stock market went down crashing.[11]

In May 1932, Al Capone began serving his 11-year sentence for tax evasion, in Atlanta, GA. He was later transferred to Alcatraz Island to finish his sentence. [12]

The Gangster Era, came to an end in 1933, lasting a period from 1919, when the Prohibition was repealed. The 1920s saw gangsters, including Al Capone, Dion O'Banion, Bugs Moran and Tony Accardo battle law enforcement and each other on the streets of Chicago during the Prohibition era.[13]

The Century of Progress World's Fair took place in 1933 from May 27 to November 1 and named "A Century of Progress".[14] On February 15, 1933, Mayor Anton Cermak was shot while standing near President-elect Roosevelt in Miami; the mayor died on March 6. In December 1933, violence broke out by communists in the city. On 17 December they attacked a parade of Ukrainians. By 1933, four years after the start of the Great Depression, unemployment reached 50 percent.[15]

In early 1933, Theodore "Handsome Jack" Klutas was machine-gunned to death by cops, after one of his gang turned on Klutas, ending the gang's kidnapping spree".[4]

In 1929, Robert Maynard Hutchins was the fifth president of the University of Chicago when the university underwent many changes during his 24-year tenure. He had eliminated varsity football from the university in an attempt to emphasize academics over athletics.[16] He organized the university's graduate work into its current four divisions and a liberal-arts curriculum known as the Common Core was also added. But in 1933, his proposal to merge the University of Chicago and Northwestern University into a single university did not come through [17] However, during his tenure in office, the development of University of Chicago Hospitals (now known as the University of Chicago Medical Center) was completed and enrolled its first medical students, and also at the same time the Committee on Social Thought was created.[18]


1934 Chicago Union Stock Yards' fire aftermath.

On 22 July 1934, John Dillinger was shot by the FBI in the alley next to the Biograph Theater.[19] On January 19, 1935, Coopers Inc. sold the world's first briefs. In 1935, Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago was awarded the very first Heisman Trophy.[20] In 1934, a major fire broke out at the Chicago Union Stock Yards, the second major fire in its history after the 1910 fire.

Masses of blacks migrated to the city from the south during the "Great Migration" of the first half of the 20th century. Many arrived in the city looking for work and settled in what became known as the "Black Belt", the chain of neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago where three-quarters of the city's African American population lived by the mid-20th century. The Black Belt was an area of aging, dilapidated housing that stretched 30 blocks along State Street on the South Side. It was rarely more than seven blocks wide. Many African Americans who moved to the Black Belt area of Chicago were from the Southeastern region of the United States. Discrimination played a big role in the lives of blacks. They often struggled to find decent housing. Immigration to Chicago resulted in overcrowding, and although there were decent homes in the African American sections, the core of the Black Belt was a slum. A 1934 census estimated that black households contained 6.8 people on average, whereas white households contained 4.7.[21] Many blacks lived in apartments that lacked plumbing, with only one bathroom for each floor.[21] With the buildings so overcrowded, building inspections and garbage collection were below the minimum mandatory requirements for healthy sanitation. This unhealthiness increased the threat of disease. Crime in African-American neighborhoods was a low priority to the police. Associated with problems of poverty and southern culture, rates of violence and homicide were high. Some women resorted to prostitution to survive. Both low life and middle class strivers were concentrated in a small area.


The Chicago Memorial Day Incident, 1937

Soldier Field was the scene of the 1936 world championship games when Chicago hosted the Amateur Softball Association. Although billiards was considered to be a popular commercial sport for blue-collar workers, the number of licensed billiard parlors diminished from 2,244 (1920) to 580 (1936) due to the Great Depression.[22] On November 28, 1937, in Soldier Field, Austin High School beat Leo High School 26-0 in the annual playoff which pitted the champions of the city's Public League against the Catholic League. The crowd, estimated at 120,000, was considered to be the largest ever to view a football game in the US.[23]

On May 26, 1937, 85,000 steelworkers in five states walked out. Five Chicago-area mills were shut with 22,000 workers walking out. Republic Steel clash four days later.[24] Ten demonstrators were killed by police bullets during the "Little Steel Strike" of 1937. When several smaller steelmakers, including Republic Steel, refused to follow the lead of U.S. Steel by signing a union contract, a strike was called by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).[25] In the melee that followed, 10 demonstrators were killed and 60 injured; 40 police officers were hurt.


The year 1938 saw the National League pennant won by the Cubs. A key moment in the team's pennant drive came near the end of the season when Gabby Hartnett hit a game-ending home run at a foggy and nearly dark Wrigley Field; according to legend, the ball disappeared into the fog and was never found. The Cubs went into first place, and clinched the pennant three days later. Hartnett's shot entered baseball lore as the "Homer in the Gloamin'".[26]

On 8 November 1939, two unknown gunman assassinated Chicago's Attorney Edward O'Hare. They drove close to his car on Ogden Avenue and shot him. Apparently, O'Hare had double crossed The Outfit (secretive organized crime cartel) while managing some of its affairs had leaked information about the Outfit to authorities for years.[27]

Lakefront of Chicago, 1938

After long efforts, in the late 1930s, workers organized across racial lines to form the United Packinghouse Workers of America. By then, the majority of workers in Chicago's plants were black, but they succeeded in creating an interracial organizing committee. It succeeded in organizing unions both in Chicago and Omaha, Nebraska, the city with the second largest meatpacking industry. This union belonged to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which was more progressive than the American Federation of Labor. They succeeded in lifting segregation of job positions. For a time, workers achieved living wages and other benefits, leading to blue collar middle-class life for decades. Some blacks were also able to move up the ranks to supervisory and management positions. The CIO also succeeded in organizing Chicago's steel industry. Raceway Park was a one-fifth-mile asphalt oval, built in 1938, for amateur stock car competitions.[28]


  1. ^ "Smithsonian Folkways". Blues/Roots/Chicago-The 1930s. Folkways Smithsonian. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  2. ^ Russo 2008, pp. 45–46.
  3. ^ Russo 2008, pp. 47–48.
  4. ^ a b Sifakis 2005, p. 244.
  5. ^ Tiebert, Laura (19 July 2006). Frommer's Chicago Day by Day. John Wiley & Sons. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-471-78814-0. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  6. ^ a b Newton-Matza, Mitchell (2009). Jazz Age: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. 184. ISBN 978-1-59884-033-9. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  7. ^ Lake Michigan Backroads: Your Guide to Wild and Scenic Adventures in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. Voyageur Press. 2008. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-7603-2980-1. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  8. ^ Eisen, George; Wiggins, David Kenneth (1994). Ethnicity and Sport in North American History and Culture. ABC-CLIO. pp. 190–. ISBN 978-0-275-95451-2.
  9. ^ "Census of Population and Housing". Census of the US. Archived from the original on 8 February 2006. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  10. ^ "The Doorway to Hell". Internet Movie data Base. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  11. ^ Ciccone 2009, pp. 26–27.
  12. ^ Russo 2008, p. 48.
  13. ^ "Gang (crime) – History". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2009. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  14. ^ Ina Rae Hark (2007). American Cinema of the 1930s [nineteen Thirties]: Themes and Variations. Rutgers University Press. pp. 93–. ISBN 978-0-8135-4082-5. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  15. ^ "Chicago during the Great Depression". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  16. ^ "History of the Office". The University of Chicago Office of the President. November 6, 2008. Retrieved September 14, 2009.
  17. ^ "The University of Chicago proposal". Northwestern university. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  18. ^ "A Brief History of the Medical Center". The University of Chicago Medical Center. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  19. ^ Girardin, George Russell; Helmer, William J. (31 December 2004). Dillinger: The Untold Story. Indiana University Press. p. 276. ISBN 978-0-253-21633-5. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  20. ^ Park, Jack (1 April 2003). The Official Ohio State Football Encyclopedia. Sports Publishing LLC. p. 152. ISBN 978-1-58261-695-7. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  21. ^ a b Hirsch, Arnold R. (8 May 1998). Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940–1960. University of Chicago Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-226-34244-3. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  22. ^ Riess, Steven A.; Gems, Gerald R. (1 January 2009). The Chicago Sports Reader: 100 Years of Sports in the Windy City. University of Illinois Press. pp. 27–. ISBN 978-0-252-07615-2.
  23. ^ Jauss, Bill (10 August 1997). "The 150 Most Memorable Moments In Chicago Sports". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  24. ^ Grossman, Ron. "Republic Steel strike footage begins at minute 11:00". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 17 February 2014.
  25. ^ "Memorial Day Massacre". Illinois Labor History Society. Archived from the original on 28 February 2014. Retrieved 17 February 2014.
  26. ^ Ciccone 2009, p. 29.
  27. ^ Russo 2008, pp. 508–509.
  28. ^ Riess, p. 35


External links[edit]