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Your Saturday history briefing

Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition
Welcome to the “This week in history” newsletter, part of Afternoon Edition! Every Saturday we take a break from recapping the day’s news to bring you a deep dive into Chicago’s disaster-facing, beefing and out-of-this-world history. For more historic photos, follow us at @CSTphotovault on Facebook and Instagram.
— Alison Martin (@miss_alison_m, follow for extra history plus rants and dogs throughout the week)

This week in history: ‘Big Bill’s’ big disaster
Mayor William Hale Thompson sits for a portrait in 1927 in front of a fireplace in a room in Chicago holding a newspaper and looking toward the camera. From the Sun-Times archives.
Mayor William Hale Thompson sits for a portrait in 1927 in front of a fireplace in a room in Chicago holding a newspaper and looking toward the camera. From the Sun-Times archives.
Mayor William Hale Thompson — nicknamed “Big Bill” — lived up to his nickname in everything he did as head of Chicago in the 1910s and 20s. His big rhetoric ensured his was the only voice in the room, and his big campaign stunts demanded voters’ attention. Of course, his blunders also turned out to be larger than life, but his reforms and dreams for Chicago made him an unforgettable force.
The Capone-connected mayor, who was born this week on May 14, served the city through some dark moments from the U.S.’s entry into World War I through the 1919 race riots and to the Outfit-driven crime spree of the late 1920s. Elected in 1915, his first major test as mayor arrived that same year.
In the morning hours of Saturday, July 24, a party of Western Electric employees boarded the S.S. Eastland, docked in the Chicago River at the Clark Street Bridge, for the company’s fifth annual picnic. But before the ship could leave the river, it rolled over, sending 2,500 passengers and crew members into the water. About 844 lives were lost that day.
Thompson happened to be in San Fransisco at the time, but the Chicago Daily News published the telegram he received the following telegram that same day from his acting mayor: “Steamship Eastland turned over on side in river this morning at Clark street bridge. Twenty-five hundred employees of Western Electric company in excursion on board. Estimate 200 to 300 dead. Everything being done to take care of the situation.” The mayor promised to rush home in “a special train if possible” and declared July 29 a day of mourning.
The press and the street car men’s union greeted Thompson, his wife and “booster” party at the station on July 28, the paper reported. “It is the gloomiest day in Chicago’s history,” he told them. When asked about the “presidential boom” surrounding the mayor, he replied grimly, “This is no time to talk politics. I have got plenty to attend to right here in Chicago.”
Find out what awaited Big Bill in Chicago following the disaster here. Check out “Big Bill of Chicago” for a full look at the Thompson years or take a deep dive into how we won control of the city here.
ALSO THIS WEEK IN HISTORY:
Strange Chicago
It’s no surprise that Rat Pack crooner Frank Sinatra thought of Chicago as his kind of town. In addition to being made an honorary citizen, the famed singer, who died this week on May 14, 1998, also received 24-hour police protection, free of charge.
And not surprisingly, that’s a fact that didn’t sit well with then-Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko. His May 4, 1976 column, “Yes, it’s his kind of town,” so inflamed Sinatra that the singer wrote a reply and had it hand-delivered to Royko himself, prompting an odd celebrity beef that must already be in development for a future season of “Feud.”
The revelation that Sinatra received free protection from a tax-funded department would’ve been particularly aggravating to most Chicagoans, not just Royko. Two years earlier, the city saw its murder count for the year hit 970, a terrible record that remains intact today.
“Every night,” the columnist wrote, “hundreds of scrub ladies make it from their downtown jobs to their homes, with only a heavy purse and a strong set of lungs to protect them. But Sinatra, with his army of flunkies, has a full-time police guard.”
When reached for comment, the district commander admitted that he wasn’t sure why Sinatra had a guard. The order allegedly came from downtown. Deputy Supt. Sam Nolan also refused to answer and insisted Royko talk to David Mozee, the department’s director of news affairs. Mozee claimed the performer and his people asked for protection after receiving some threatening anonymous phone calls.
 Royko had no time for that excuse.
 “There are women in this city who regularly hear from panters, breathers, grunters and other assorted lewd commentators,” he wrote. “Cops don’t plant themselves outside the doors of these women. They say: ‘Just hang up, lady.’ 
"But some drunk with 20 cents, who doesn’t like the way Ol’ Blue Eyes parts his hairpiece, can make a phone call, and the Chicago Police Department takes it seriously.”
Sinatra was “a noted person, and he’s liked and disliked,” Mozee continued. The singer planned to attend a police ceremonial event while he was performing in town, so he should get some added protection.
But ordinary citizens do nice things for police every day, Royko argued. They pay the taxes that pay police salaries for one thing.
And why would Sinatra, with the “tough reputation,” the columnist wrote, need protection at all? “He’s an absolute terror when it comes to punching out elderly drunks or telling off female reporters.”
Suffice to say, Sinatra did not care for Royko’s column — and readers got to hear about it in the next day’s paper. The singer highlighted what he felt were Royko’s most egregious claims.
“First, you would find immediately that I do not have an army of flunkies,“ Sinatra wrote, referring to Royko’s "army of flunkies” remark. To this, Royko apologized as he didn’t know if the singer actually had any flunkies — and he apologized especially to “the flunky who delivered the letter.”
“Secondly, neither myself, nor my secretary, nor my security man put in the request for police protection. It is something that’s far from necessary,“ Sinatra continued. But Royko didn’t accuse him of asking for protection. Mozee said he did.
"This point could have been easily cleared up before I wrote the column,” he said in his reply, “but every time we called your suite, your secretary got snippy and hung up.”
“And thirdly, who in the hell gives you the right to decide how disliked I am if you know nothing about me?“ Sinatra demanded, to which Royko pointed out again that Mozee said this.
Of his "tough reputation” being an allegation, the columnist relented. “After rereading your massive file of news clippings, I agree that you have never punched any ‘elderly drunks.’ Most of the drunks you punched were younger.”
To finish off his tirade, the lounge singer tells Royko that he’s no better than the “female gossip columnists” who write “crap” about his reputation, and he called the columnist a “pimp” because “you are using people to make money, just as they are.”
He also offered Royko a wager:
“(a) You prove, without a doubt, that I have ever punched an elderly drunk or elderly anybody, you can pick up $100,000.
“(b) I will allow you to pull my ‘hairpiece.’ If it moves, I will give you another $100,000; if it does not, I punch you in the mouth.“
For all his criticism of Sinatra, Royko admitted that writing the previous day’s column pained him, as he was a massive fan. And receiving a hand-written letter from the great singer "was a thrill. Even if he did call me a pimp.”
“I don’t want to pull your hair,” he said of the bet. “People would think we’re a couple of weirdos.”
Royko then set new terms — if Sinatra’s hair doesn’t move, he can punch the columnist in the mouth. “I figure that fans who can’t buy tickets for your show will pay 50 cents to touch my swollen lip.”
But if it did move, Royko wouldn’t take the 100 grand. He’d just like one of the singer’s old bow ties and an original recording of “Birth of the Blues.”
“I still say it was your best song.”
You can read the full May 5, 1976 Mike Royko column, which includes Frank Sinatra’s full letter, here or check out a full collection of his columns here. Even after the Royko feud, Chicago remained Sinatra’s kind of town. Watch him sing the iconic song in 1982 here.
City of arts
Stevie Wonder performs at the Chicago Amphitheater on Oct. 30, 1974. Photo by Chuck (Charles) Kirman/Chicago Sun-Times.
Stevie Wonder performs at the Chicago Amphitheater on Oct. 30, 1974. Photo by Chuck (Charles) Kirman/Chicago Sun-Times.
Not all famous musicians come into town and start fighting with local columnists. To date, the legendary Stevie Wonder has never sent an angry letter telling off a Chicago columnist (that we know of, at least).
Born this week on May 13, Wonder first topped the charts in 1963 when he was just 13, the youngest ever to do so, and he’s been topping it regularly ever since with hits like “Superstition,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and “Isn’t She Lovely.”
In late October 1974, Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Al Rudis had just one word to describe Wonder: genius. And that’s high praise when considering that in the same week Wonder performed at the Chicago Ampitheater, Todd Rundgren and Elton John also hit the stages.
“It’s an incredible four days of pop music in Chicago,” the reviewer wrote. “And the temptation is to compare, to rank talents. It’s a temptation to be resister, and yet … there’s just no way Stevie Wonder is going to be topped.”
The performer “leveled the opposition” at his Oct. 30 concert in Chicago, reaching “Higher Ground” and pulling the audience with him, Rudis wrote. 
The genius of Wonder’s performance played out as he blended his music together with his own idealism and even his humor. “Stevie’s sermon of ‘pure love among all people’ was simple, but not simplistic,” the reviewer said. “No hokey brotherhood blather for him — he realizes that his dream is for future generations and reality will be much harsher in his lifetime. Yet he bravely holds onto his beautiful ‘Vision of My Mind,’ and the song is sublimely amazing.”
Wonder’s hit “Higher Ground” received its full-length treatment and “achieved an inensity so powerful that it seemed to take hodl of you hysically and shake you until you nearly cried,” Rudis wrote.
But Wonder’s humor grounded the show. The Wonderland band played “virtual history of sock and soul music,” including oldies like “Earth Angel” and “Oh What a Night,” that had audience members nearly falling out of their seats with laughter, and Wonder recreated his 12-year-old self for a rendition of “Fintertips Part 2,” his first major hit.
The concert proved to be a massive success, forcing Rudis to equate Wonder’s genius with those of Einstein and Beetohovan.
Check out a few more photos from that 1974 concert below.
Wonder sings for the crowd. Photo by Chuck (Charles) Kirman/Chicago Sun-Times.
Wonder sings for the crowd. Photo by Chuck (Charles) Kirman/Chicago Sun-Times.
Wonder looks up as he continues to play. Photo by Chuck (Charles) Kirman/Chicago Sun-Times.
Wonder looks up as he continues to play. Photo by Chuck (Charles) Kirman/Chicago Sun-Times.
Listen to Stevie Wonder’s “A Wonder Summer’s Night in Chicago” concert from 2007 here or watch Stevie Wonder perform live for the Muppets on “Seasame Street” here. Enjoy your Saturday afternoon with this playlist of Wonder’s greatest hits.
First mention/Last mention
Bea Arthur, born May 13, 1922: Best known for her television characters Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak, Bea Arthur could cut down anyone with the raise of one eyebrow and deliver a quip that would bring the house down. Her characters were sharp, witty and wholly relatable. Arthur’s very first mention in the Chicago Sun-Times came on June 19, 1966, in a feature story about the future of musical comedies. Audiences might’ve recognized Arthur’s name and her comedic chops from the 1964 hit, “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which she played Yente the matchmaker. In 1966, Arthur was starring on Broadway with actress and friend Angela Landsbury in “Mame.” “Bea Arthur plays Mame’s bosom buddy and she’s got the devastating dagger bit down pat,” reporter Glenna Syse wrote.
Oscar Stanton De Priest, died May 12, 1951: A fixture in Chicago and Illinois politics for nearly half a century, Oscar Stanton De Priest first stepped into political office as a Cook County commissioner. In 1915, the same year “Big Bill” Thompson took the mayor’s office, De Priest was elected alderman of the 3rd ward. He later moved on to become a congressman in 1928. Days before his death, he checked into Provident Hospital with a kidney ailment, and although his condition appeared to approve, his health eventually worsened. “For three terms,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in its obituary, “he concentrated his oratorical powers against Jim Crowism and for a national anti-lynching law. He even visited some Southern cities to speak for these causes. Ku Klux Klan groups threatened him and burned him in effigy.”
Watch some of Bea Arthur’s best sarcastic moments on “The Golden Girls” here or see her perform with pal Angela Landsbury here. For more on what Oscar Stanton De Priest’s life in Chicago and Washington, D.C. was like in Congress, read more here and check out more on his still-standing home on the South Side here.
Thanks for reading! Want to share your thoughts? Your favorite moment in Chicago history? Your complaints? Send them to amartin@suntimes.com.
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