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Grafters and Goo Goos

Corruption and Reform in Chicago

James L. Merriner

Publication Year: 2004

Chicago’s reputation for corruption is the basis of local and national folklore and humor. Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833–2003 unfolds the city’s notorious history of corruption and the countervailing reform struggles that largely failed to clean it up. More than a regional history of crime in politics, this wide-ranging account of governmental malfeasances traces ongoing public corruption and reform to its nineteenth-century democratic roots. Former Chicago journalist James L. Merriner reveals the battles between corrupt politicos and ardent reformers to be expressions of conflicting class, ethnic, and religious values.


From Chicago’s earliest years in the 1830s, the city welcomed dollar-chasing businessmen and politicians, swiftly followed by reformers who strived to clean up the attendant corruption. Reformers in Chicago were called “goo goos,” a derisive epithet short for “good-government types.” Grafters and Goo Goos contends a certain synergy defined the relationship between corruption and reform. Politicians and reformers often behaved similarly, their separate ambitions merging into a conjoined politics of interdependency wherein the line between heroes and villains grew increasingly faint. The real story, asserts Merriner, has less to do with right against wrong than it does with the ways the cultural backgrounds of politicians and reformers steered their own agendas, animating and defining each other by their opposition.


Drawing on original and archival research, Merriner identifies constants in the struggle between corruption and reform amid a welter of changing social circumstances and customs—decades of alternating war and peace, hardships and prosperity. Three areas of reform and resistance are identified: structural reform of the political system to promote honesty and efficiency, social reform to provide justice to the lower classes, and moral reform to combat vice. “In the matter of corruption and reform, the constants might be stronger than the variables,” writes Merriner in the Preface. “The players, rules, and scorekeepers change, but not the essential game.”


Complemented by eighteen illustrations, Grafters and Goo Goos is rife with shocking and amusing anecdotes and peppered with the personalities of famous muckrakers, bootleggers, mayors, and mobsters. While other studies have profiled infamous Chicago corruption cases and figures such as Al Capone and Richard J. Daley, this is the first to provide an overview appropriate for historians and general readers alike. In examining Chicago’s notorious saga of corruption and reform against a backdrop of social history, Merriner calls attention to our constant problems of both civic and national corruption and contributes to larger discussions about the American experiment of democratic self-government.


Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Front Cover

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pp. c-ii

Title Page

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p. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

More than twenty years ago when I started reporting for a Chicago newspaper, I thought the city’s reputation for lurid political wickedness was overblown, that it was an indelible but mythical hangover from the time of Al Capone. Surely, after decades of reform and the emergence of a well-educated, professional political class, public corruption—while it still...

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pp. xvii-xxii

Authors writing acknowledgments must decide whether to try to thank everyone in sight or just to name the principal helpers. Either way, they risk leaving someone out. My task is complicated by the fact that many informants for this book overlapped those for my three other books about politics and history. Sorting out these sources is a project that defeats me....

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pp. 1-9

By the end of the twentieth century, Lawrence S. Bloom was just about the last of his breed. He was an upper-middle-class professional, nominally a Democrat but independent of the party’s organization, a moral entrepreneur, a proud reformer who tilted against windmills in a quest...

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1. Frontier, Finances, and Fire: 1833–71

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pp. 10-35

Chicago’s first reformer appeared three months before the place was even incorporated as a town. A boat carrying the Reverend Jeremiah Porter moored at the mouth of the Chicago River on 11 May 1833. He saw “a wide, wet prairie, as far as the eye could reach, on a muddy river winding

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2. Businessmen Rebels: 1872–93

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pp. 36-60

Awave of fires in the summer of 1874 had more to do with reform in Chicago than did the great Fire of 1871. The worst one started in a rag peddler’s shack on 14 July and spread to destroy 812 buildings on forty-seven acres and to kill about twenty people. It burned down the slums...

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3. Progressives and Muckrakers: 1894–1909

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pp. 61-88

One reason that the shortfalls of reformers are puzzling is the formidable assets on their side—wealth, prestige, and moral and spiritual zeal. William T. Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago! exemplified and excited all of these like a symbol of that industrial age, an electric dynamo. Stead spoke...

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4. Progressive to Prohibitionist: 1910–20

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pp. 89-104

Charles E. Merriam expressed the fundamental creed of Progressivism when running for mayor in 1911. “You must decide,” he told voters, “whether the next four years in Chicago are to be years of graft, crime, lawlessness, waste, extravagance, and defiance of our desires, or whether...

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5. “Big Bill ” and Bootleggers: 1921–33

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pp. 105-131

Al Capone was not an organizational genius, and Eliot Ness did not single-handedly take him down. Those are two major myths. Lesser ones are that Capone poured as much as $260,000 into Thompson’s 1927 reelection campaign and that the gangster then hung a portrait of the...

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6. Depression and War: 1934–45

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pp. 132-152

The Depression had nearly everyone—reformers, regulars, and ordinary people—discouraged and bitter, if not despairing. Al Capone, with his shrewd if singular sense of public relations, set up a soup kitchen before he went to prison. No number of soup kitchens, however, could answer...

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7. Big Nineteen, Big Nine: 1946–59

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pp. 153-175

Senator Estes Kefauver’s Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce held explosive hearings in Miami, Kansas City, and St. Louis in 1950. Kefauver planned to take his show to Chicago that fall. He went there in October to make preparations, staying at the famed...

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8. Daley and Dissent: 1960–69

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pp. 176-189

That Daley’s machine stole votes for the Democratic ticket in 1960 has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the legend that vote fraud in Chicago gave the presidency to John F. Kennedy is false.1 Certainly, Daley supported Kennedy and the president rewarded him....

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9. Scandals and Stings: 1970–82

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pp. 190-217

Chicago had grown used to periodic, even annual, outbreaks of political scandal for 140 years. Even so, the notion of scandal as a permanent presence in the national political culture was cemented in the 1970s. Since Watergate there has been much wringing of hands over public cynicism...

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10. “Harold!” and More Scandals and Stings: 1983–89

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pp. 218-239

The Niagara of African American enthusiasm for Harold Washington in the Chicago mayoral election of 1983 is becoming lost to memory. In degree it exceeded even, by the author’s observations, black support for Maynard H. Jackson Jr. of Atlanta, the first African American mayor of a...

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11. Daley and Dissent Redux: 1990 –2003

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pp. 240-261

The period 1990–2003 saw corruption exposed in and scandals broadcast from these public agencies: Chicago’s city hall, city council, parks district, police department, and public schools; Chicago’s housing and transit authorities; the Cook County board of commissioners, forest preserve...

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pp. 262-270

A cigar-chomping city fire inspector silently and critically appraised the interior of Catherine O’Leary’s barn behind her house at 137 DeKoven Street on 8 October 1871. Nervously, timorously, Mrs. O’Leary paused from milking her cow to ask whether a mutual understanding could be...


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pp. 271-282

Chicago Political Glossary

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pp. 283-286

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 287-294


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pp. 295-303

Back Cover

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p. bc-bc

E-ISBN-13: 9780809387076
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809328741

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2004