Donald Trump’s loose talk in early August about the Second Amendment got a lot of people worrying that he was not so subtly calling for armed violence,or even assassination.
More than a century ago, Chicago reformers weren’t so delicate. In what might be called “good government terrorism,” they actively talked about a mob stringing up a businessman widely hated for his power and corruption — the streetcar-elevated line magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes.
As the nineteenth century neared its end, Yerkes was attempting to vastly improve the value of his streetcar lines by obtaining franchise agreements extending for 50 or, even better, 99 years. However, while he’d been able to win most such battles in the past, he found himself this time up against an increasingly organized coalition of reformers who, to their own surprise, were working hand-in-glove with some of the same corrupt politicians formerly in the financier’s pocket.
Indeed, in 1897-98, Yerkes was the target of an unprecedented campaign in which he was routinely and publicly threatened with violence.
“Decorating a lamp post”
Consider these statements:
• Ald. John Harlan, a reformer, speaking before a crowd of 3,500, issued a warning to “that proud and haughty bandit, that great highwayman…arrogant Charles T. Yerkes” that he was in danger of “decorating a lamp post.”
• Lawyer Charles Shackleford told a meeting of fellow Democrats, “I am opposed to mob law, but there are occasions in the history of every community when appeals to moral sense are in vain.”
• Former Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld told a group of 5,000 people: “I do not believe in capital punishment on general principles, but I want to say to you that, if those enthusiastic gentlemen who recently talked about lampposts should carry their measures into execution, it would have more effect at Springfield than a million bills.”
• Mayor Carter Harrison Jr., whose father had been assassinated during his fifth term as the city’s chief executive, said, “I will not be surprised to see some hanging done in the streets of Chicago. I don’t mind saying, too, that I shall not send in a riot call when it starts.”
Yerkes wasn’t the only target of such warnings. Aldermen, state legislators and prominent Chicago businessmen allied with Yerkes, and even their wives and children, were also threatened. But Yerkes was, in the public mind, the embodiment of all that was corrupt, rotten and evil.
It was astonishing. For two years, a violent hysteria gripped office-holders, protesters and Chicago’s newspapers. Even as they sought to cleanse the city’s politics of corruption and bring good government to Chicago, Harlan, Harrison and other reformers were borrowing the lurid language of anarchist revolutionaries and Wild West vigilantes. They were playing with fire.
Like Trump, the reformers would have explained away their comments about lamp posts and lynching as jocular exaggerations. Yet, such talk stirred angry crowds to the edge of mob havoc. “Hang ‘em! Hang em!” thousands of voices shouted at mass meetings, and it wouldn’t have been difficult, even inadvertently, to push the hordes over that edge.
During the height of the anti-Yerkes uproar, the central business district was filled with men sporting on their lapels a “noose badge” made of black satin and featuring the image of a gallows.
The Chicago Chronicle even published this advertisement in December, 1898:
“WANTED: 10,000 Strong-limbed and fearless men. Apply at the council chamber, with ropes, the night the aldermen attempt to pass the fifty-year franchise robbery. Come prepared to do business.”
At the City Council meeting later that month, the anti-Yerkes efforts came to aa climax in a series of turning-point votes. Tough-looking men seated themselves along the front rows of the galleries. Each dangled a noose over the railings.
The threats worked. Yerkes was defeated by the reformers and their less-than-pure allies, including the infamous boodlers, Ald. “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and “Hinky Dink” Mike Kenna of the 1st ward. Soon after, Yerkes sold off his Chicago holdings, reaping a large fortune, and then went to London where he was influential in the creation of that city’s subway system, the Tube.
In the end, no one was hanged. But maybe Chicago just got lucky.
Such talk is a lot scarier today.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the August 11, 2016 edition of the Chicago Tribune.