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John J. Coughlin (August 1860 – November 11, 1938), known as "Bathhouse John" or "the Bath", was an American politician who served as an alderman of the Chicago City Council from 1892 until his death. Representing the 1st ward for the entirety of his tenure, he represented the Chicago Loop and in later years the Near South Side as well. He was the longest serving alderman in Chicago history until November 2014 when his record was surpassed by Ed Burke of the 14th ward.

John Coughlin
Bathhouse John Coughlin.jpg
A depiction of Coughlin from the 1890s
Alderman of the Chicago City Council
In office
1892 – November 11, 1938
Serving with John R. Morris (1892–1893)
Louis I. Epstean (1893–1895)
Francis P. Gleason (1895–1897)
Michael Kenna (1897–1923)
Preceded byNicholas A. Cremer
Succeeded byVacant, then Michael Kenna
Constituency1st ward
Personal details
Born(1860-08-15)August 15, 1860
DiedNovember 11, 1938(1938-11-11) (aged 78)
Political partyDemocratic
ResidenceChicago, Illinois

Notoriously corrupt, he and longtime fellow alderman Michael Kenna led the Gray Wolves, a group that attracted much scorn from reformers but was able to maintain power for over half a century. He and Kenna were able to control the notorious Levee vice district and were involved in the rise of organized crime in the city, presaging the advent of "Big Bill" Thompson and Al Capone. A colorful figure in Chicago politics, he was known in addition to corruption for his outlandish fashion, eccentric poetry, and horse racing.

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Early lifeEdit

Coughlin was born August 15, 1860 in Chicago. He acquired his nicknames as a result of working in a bathhouse as a masseur.[1] Eventually he was able to purchase a tavern and several bathhouses of his own.

Political careerEdit

Coughlin's tenure was marked by a large amount of corruption, in which he, Kenna, and 19th ward alderman Johnny Powers led the Gray Wolves, a group of notorious aldermen. In the late 19th century Chicago would award franchises to private companies for construction of such utilities as gas and public transit, the latter of which would prove contentious in Chicago. Businesses seeking such lucrative contracts would bribe and otherwise work with the aldermen in a practice known as "boodling". Such antics ultimately led to the creation of the reform organization Municipal Voters' League to run and endorse candidates in opposition to the Gray Wolves.[2] Despite being almost invariably excoriated by the Municipal Voters' League Coughlin himself was re-elected 19 times and never defeated,[3] running unopposed in his last four elections. Indifferent if not enthused about his reputation for corruption, upon being accused of corruption he demanded a retraction not for the charge of graft but for the claim he was born in Waukegan.[1]

Entry into politicsEdit

Coughlin was elected alderman as a Democrat[4] from Chicago's First Ward on April 5, 1892 despite having no prior experience in public service.[5][a] Coughlin and his partner, fellow First Ward alderman Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna, were known as the "Lords of the Levee", a district which was part of their ward. The Levee was known as being a vice-ridden section of Chicago and home to many saloons, gambling dens, prostitutes, pimps, and flop houses.

First Ward BallEdit

 
Cartoons from the Chicago Tribune depicting "Bathhouse" John (left) and "Hinky Dink" Kenna (right)

Coughlin and Kenna were also the hosts of the First Ward Ball, an annual political fundraiser which brought together safecrackers, sex workers, gangsters, politicians, businessmen, gamblers, and a variety of other types. The event raised more than $50,000 a year for the two First Ward aldermen until it was closed down in 1909 by Mayor Fred Busse. By the time it was banned, the ball was so large that it had to be held in the Chicago Coliseum, the city's major convention center. Besides its notoriety in attracting many unsavory characters it often ended with the police having to curb disorderly conduct bordering on rioting.

Kenna steps downEdit

In 1923 the number of aldermen a Chicago ward was entitled to was reduced from two to one, in concert with the number of wards being increased from 35 to 50. Kenna stepped down in favor of Coughlin after this change, but remained as 1st ward committeeman.

ProhibitionEdit

Coughlin was opposed to Prohibition, introducing a motion in the Council to praise New York Governor Al Smith for repealing the law enforcing Prohibition and encouraging Illinois to do the same. In anticipation for the ratification of the 21st amendment he introduced an ordinance providing for the licensing of liquor. The Berghoff in his ward was the first bar in Chicago to receive a liquor license after Prohibition was repealed.

Later careerEdit

By 1933 a report on Coughlin's unopposed run in that year's aldermanic election by the Associated Press described him as a "Vestige of a past era" and "the epitome of a vanishing [type of] American".[6] At that time the longest-serving municipal legislator in the country by his own estimate, he decried that Council business distracted him from his poetry.

After 46 years as alderman of the First Ward, Coughlin died in office at age 78 of pneumonia at Mercy Hospital in Chicago on November 11, 1938.[1] After a vacancy in the position his longtime partner Kenna would assume the office of 1st Ward alderman.[7] Like Kenna, Coughlin is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Evanston.[8]

Personal lifeEdit

Coughlin was an eccentric figure in Chicago politics, known for his erratic behavior, flashy fashion, poetry, and horse racing. His boisterous personality and large figure often stood in contrast to the comparative meekness and small stature of his partner Kenna.

FashionEdit

Having grown up in poverty, Coughlin liked to dress himself in ostentatious fashions, often contracting the services of costumers for vaudevillian actors. He was known to prefer bright colors.

PoetryEdit

Coughlin was known for his poetry, which was often considered of dubious quality. Such was his infamy in poetry that it was common practice for Chicagoans to pen doggerel and facetiously credit it to Coughlin, a practice he allowed.

HorsesEdit

Coughlin was known for his endeavors in horse racing, and was often successful in it. Ultimately, however, they failed and he died penniless.

Colorado SpringsEdit

Coughlin opened Zoo Park in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1906. He had first vacationed in Colorado Springs in 1900 and fell in love with it, spending most of his summers there. One of the main attractions of Zoo Park was an elephant named Princess Alice, which had been granted from Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo after Coughlin convinced his fellow aldermen that owning another elephant was a waste of taxpayer money. However, the rise of reformers dried up Coughlin's Chicago revenue, and combined with declining attendance at Zoo Park and the destruction by fire of Coughlin's summer residence in 1914 his stay became more difficult, and he ultimately left Colorado for good upon its passing of Prohibition.[9]

LegacyEdit

A 2012 retrospective by NBC News Chicago ranked Coughlin and Kenna as the 3rd and 4th most corrupt public officials in Illinois history, behind only William Hale Thompson and Paul Powell.[10]

See alsoEdit

NotesEdit

  1. ^ Reference incorrectly states Coughlin's age at election as 35.

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b c Evans, Arthur (November 12, 1938). "Coughlin to Get Kind of Funeral That He'd Wish". Chicago Tribune. Chicago, IL: Tribune Co. p. 12.
  2. ^ Maureen A. Flanagan. "Gray Wolves". Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
  3. ^ Doherty, James (May 24, 1953). "The Story of Bathhouse John: Chicago's Fabulous First Ward Alderman Coughlin". Chicago Tribune.
  4. ^ "Chicago's New City Council". Chicago Tribune. 3 April 1929. Retrieved 25 July 2018.
  5. ^ "All Down But Nine: Out Of 34 Old Aldermen 25 Are Retired". Chicago Tribune. April 6, 1892. p. 1.
  6. ^ McCoy, Homer W. "Bathhouse John Coughlin Still Power in Ward". The Dispatch. 55. Associated Press. p. 2. Retrieved April 7, 2019 – via Newspapers.com.
  7. ^ "Centennial List of Mayors, City Clerks, City Attorneys, City Treasurers, and Aldermen, elected by the people of the city of Chicago, from the incorporation of the city on March 4, 1837 to March 4, 1937, arranged in alphabetical order, showing the years during which each official held office". CHSMedia.org. Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 19 September 2018.
  8. ^ John Coughlin at Find a grave
  9. ^ Fitzgerald, Doug. "'Bathhouse John:' Zoo Park's pickled pachyderm spiced up early 1900s Colorado Spings". Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  10. ^ McClelland, Edward. "The 12 Most Corrupt Public Officials in Illinois History: The Complete List". NBC Chicago. Retrieved March 17, 2019.

Further readingEdit

  1. Wendt, Lloyd; Kogan, Herman (2005). Lords of the Levee. Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-2320-7.