Kevin Baker says America needs to bring back political machines

Historians in the News
tags: politics



Some time before the First World War my grandfather, Jack Baker, went to work for “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, the blustery Democratic boss of the infamous political machine in Chicago’s First Ward. Jack had been sent to farm an Indiana homestead, along with his brother and sister, after their mother died. There they were worked half to death, a common fate for hired-out children of the time. My grandfather and his older brother ran away, then returned for their sister, who they freed at gunpoint. But where were three homeless children to turn then? Why, to the First Ward, where Bathhouse John and his political machine would welcome them with open arms.

Coughlin was called “Bathhouse” because he reputedly got his start at the age of eleven as a masseur, or “rubber,” in a Turkish bath. He quickly grasped the economic potential inherent in such an institution, and eventually accumulated enough money to buy a brace of bathhouses. Coughlin and his partner, Mike “Hinky Dink” Kenna, also took a financial interest in—meaning they collected protection money from—saloons throughout the First Ward. Soon, the two men had a foolproof system going. Anyone out of work or down on his luck—say, a man who had fallen into the bottle—could show up at one of their saloons and find cheap lodging at one of their bathhouses. Come election day, the grateful lodger would be trotted out to the local polling place with an already-filled-in ballot hidden in his pocket. There, he would accept a clean ballot from a poll worker, slip the already-completed one into the box, and return to the bathhouse, where he’d be paid 50 cents or even a dollar for the clean ballot. The fresh ballot was then filled in by bright young lads like my grandfather, who were eager to move up the ranks of the machine, and handed back to the bathhouse legion. Then off the lads would go to another polling place, to repeat the process for as long as the polls were open.

Thanks to the largesse of the machine, my grandfather went on to serve in the Great War, taught himself to be an accountant, and ended up a useful citizen and beloved father of seven. Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink remained what they were: corrupt by almost every definition of the word, avatars of a more brutal and cutthroat American age. But from a purely electoral standpoint, they were also incredibly successful. Coughlin was elected alderman 20 consecutive times, serving 46 years before he finally died of pneumonia in 1938. Hinky Dink was in and out of the city council until 1943, three years before he moved on to one of Chicago’s graveyards, which were legendary for their strong election-day turnout. 

Democrats, and America, could use men like them again. ...




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