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Saint Jane And The Ward Boss
When Jane Addams opened Hull House for Chicago’s immigrants, she began asking questions a local politician preferred not to answer
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
If Alderman John Powers of Chicago’s teeming nineteenth waul had been prescient, he might have foreseen trouble when two young ladies not long out of the female seminary in Rockford, Illinois, moved into a dilapidated old house on HaIsted Street, in September, iSSg, and announced themselves “at home” to the neighbors. The ladies, however, were not very noisy about it, and it is doubtful if Powers was aware of their existence. The nineteenth ward was well supplied with people already—growing numbers of Italians, Poles, Russians, Irish, and other immigrants—and two more would hardly be noticed.
Johnny Powers was the prototype of the ward boss who was coming to be an increasingly decisive figure on the American political scene. In the first place, he was Irish. In the second, he was, in the parlance of the time, a “boodler”: his vote and influence in the Chicago Common Council were far from being beyond price. As chairman of the council’s finance committee and boss of the Cook County Democratic party he occupied a strategic position. Those who understood the inner workings of Chicago politics thought that Powers had some hnnd in nearly every corrupt ordinance passed by the council during his years in ollice. In a single year, 1895, he was help to sell six important city franchises. When the mayor vetoed Powers’ measures, a silent but significant two-thirds vote appeared to override the veto.
Ray Stannard Baker, who chanted to observe Powers in the late nineties, recorded that he was shrewd and silent, letting other men make the speeches and bring upon their heads the abuse of the public. Powers was a short, stocky man, Baker said, “with a llaring gray pompadour, a smooth-shaven face [ sic ], rather heavy features, and a restless eye.” One observer remarked that “the shadow of sympathetic gloom is always about him. He never jokes; he has forgotten how to smile …” Starting life as a grocery clerk, Powers had run for the city council in 1888 and joined the boodle ring headed by Alderman Billy Whalen. When Whalen died in an accident two years later, Powers moved swiftly to establish himself as successor. A few weeks before his death Whalen had collected some thirty thousand dollars—derived from the sale of a city franchise—to be divided among the party faithful. Powers alone knew that the money was in a safe in Whalen’s saloon, so he promptly offered a high price for the furnishings of the saloon, retrieved the money, and divided it among the gang—at one stroke establishing himself as a shrewd operator and as one who would play the racket fairly.
From this point on lie was the acknowledged head of the gang. Charles Ycrkes, the Chicago traction tycoon, l’ound in Powers an ideal tool for the purchase of city franchises. On his aldermanic salary of three dollars a week, Powers managed to acquire two large saloons of his own, a gambling establishment, a fine house, and a conspicuous collection of diamonds. When he was indicted along with two other corrupt aldermen for running a slot machine and keeping a “common gambling house,” Powers was unperturbed. The three appeared before a police judge, paid each other’s bonds, and that was the end of that. Proof of their guilt was positive, but convictions were never obtained.
On the same day the Municipal Voters League published a report for die voters on the records of the members of the city council. John Powers was described as “recognized leader of the worst element in the council … [who] has voted uniformly for bad ordinances.” The League report went on to say that he had always opposed securing any return to the city for valuable franchises, and proceeded to document the charge in detail.
To his constituents in the nineteenth ward, most of whom were getting their first initiation into American politics, Powers turned a different face. To them, he was first and last a friend. When there were celebrations, he always showed up; if the celebration happened to be a baxaar, he bought freely, murmuring piously that it would all go to the poor. In times of tragedy he was literally Johnny on the spot. If the family was too poor to provide the necessary carriage for a respectable funeral, it appeared at the doorstep —courtesy of Johnny Powers and charged to his standing account with the local undertaker. If the need was not so drastic, Powers made his presence felt with an imposing bouquet or wreath. “He has,” said the Chicago Times-Herald , “bowed with aldermaiiic grief at thousands of biers.”
Christinas meant literally tons of turkeys, gccse, and ducks—cadi one handed out personally by a member of the Powers family, with good wishes and no yuestions asked. Johnny provided more fundamental aid, too, when a breadwinner was out of work. At one time he is said to have boasted that 2,600 men from his ward (about one-third of the registered voters) were working in one way or another for the city of Chicago. This did not take into account those for whom the grateful holders of traction franchises had found a place. When election day rolled around, the returns reflected the appreciation of job-holders and their relatives.