- Historic Sites
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
By now the battle between Hull-House and Johnny Powers was sharing headlines in Chicago newspapers with the blowing up of the Maine in Havana’s harbor and the approach of the war with Spain. “Throughout the nineteenth ward,” said the Tribune , “the one absorbing topic of conversation wherever men are gathered is the fight being made against Alderman Powers.” It was rumored that Powers had offered a year’s free rent to one of the opposition leaders if he would move out of the ward before election day, and the HullHouse group let it be known that the Alderman was spending money freely in the ward, giving his lieutenants far more cash to spread around than was his custom. “Where does the money come from?” Jane Addams asked, and answered her own question: “From Mr. Yerkes.” Powers was stung, and challenged her to prove that he had ever received one dollar from any corporation.
“Driven to desperation,” said the Tribune , “Ald. Powers has at last called to his aid the wives and daughters of his political allies.” Determined to fight fire with fire, he dropped his opposition to “petticoat politicians” and gave his blessing to a Ladies Auxiliary which was instructed to counteract the work of the women of Hull-House. An enterprising reporter discovered that few of the ladies had ever seen Miss Addams or been to Hull-House, but all were obediently repeating the charge that she had “blackened and maligned the whole ward” by saying that its people were ignorant, criminal, and poor.
As the campaign became more intense, Jane Addams received numbers of violent letters, nearly all of them anonymous, from Powers’ partisans, as well as various communications from lodginghouse keepers quoting prices for votes they were ready to deliver! When the Hull-House residents discovered evidence of ties between banking, ecclesiastical, and journalistic interests, with Powers at the center, they proceeded to publicize all they knew. This brought upon their heads a violent attack by the Chicago Chronicle , the organ of the Democratic ring.
Suddenly a number of nineteenth-ward businessmen who had signed petitions for the reform candidate came out for Powers. They were poor and in debt; Powers gave the word to a landlord here, a coal dealer there, and they were beaten. The small peddlers and fruit dealers were subjected to similar pressure, for each needed a license to ply his trade, and the mere hint of a revocation was enough to create another Powers man.
When Alderman John M. Harlan, one of the stalwarts of the Municipal Voters League, came into the ward to speak, Powers supplied a few toughs to stir up a riot. Fortunately Harlan was a sturdy character, and offered so forcefully to take on all comers in fisticuffs that no volunteers appeared. Allowed to proceed, he posed some embarrassing questions: Why did nineteenth-ward residents have to pay ten-cent trolley fares when most of the city paid five? Why, when Powers was head of the city council’s free-spending committee on street paving, were the streets of the ward in execrable condition? Why were the public schools so crowded, and why had Powers suppressed a petition, circulated by Hull-House, to build more of them?
Freely admitting Powers’ reputation for charity, Harlan made the interesting suggestion that the councilman’s motives be put to the test: Would he be so generous as a private citizen? “Let us retire him to private life and see.”
Powers was pictured by the papers as being nearly apoplectic at this attack from Miss Addams’ friend. He announced that he would not be responsible for Harlan’s safety if he returned to the nineteenth ward. (Since no one had asked him to assume any such responsibility, this was presumed to be an open threat.) Harlan returned at once, telling a crowd well-laced with Powers supporters that he would “rather die in my tracks than acknowledge the right of John Powers to say who should and who should not talk in this ward.” Summoning up the memory of Garibaldi, he urged the Italians to live up to their tradition of freedom and not allow their votes to be “delivered.”
In a quieter vein, Miss Addams too spoke at a public meeting of Italians, where, it was reported, she received profound and respectful attention. “Show that you do not intend to be governed by a boss,” she told them. “It is important not only for yourselves but for your children. These things must be made plain to them.”
As the campaign progressed, the reformers began to feel they had a real chance of defeating Powers. Jane Addams was persuaded to go in search of funds with which to carry out the grand finale. “I sallied forth today and got $100,” she wrote, and “will have to keep it up all week; charming prospect, isn’t it?” But on about the twentieth of March she began to have serious hopes, too, and redoubled her efforts.