Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bleeping Golden

According to the affidavit that the United States Justice Department has filed against former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, it took just two days for Big Hair to put the squeeze on various individuals and organizations for 650,000 big ones.  Two days of work -- from October 6 to 8 in 2008.  And he claims he was a hard worker.  How much does that add up to after nearly two terms of work?

"I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing," is the way we'll remember him.  Elected by the people, for the people, to serve -- himself.

Let's turn now to a different time, back to 1895 and a different governor -- John Peter Altgeld.  Things weren't going very well for the governor in his first term.  His health was failing . . . the clerk of the State Assembly had to finish his inauguration speech for him as he sat, pale and shivering in the stifling Senate chamber.

He had, only six months into his term, pardoned the three remaining defendants in the Haymarket riots, a decision that directed a typhoon of fury toward him.  At the same time, as the Pullman Strike of 1894 flared into violence, he steadfastly refused to ask for the assistance of federal troops.

He was close to being broken.  And he was broke.  He had invested almost everything he had in a 16-story skyscraper at 127 North Dearborn Street (the present site of Block 37) called the Unity Building.  The Depression of 1893 had temporarily finished the building as a source of rental income.
The Unity Building (Art Institute of Chicago Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection)

So when former jailbird and traction tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes showed up with an offer, Altgeld sat down and listened.

"Our friends stand ready to set aside in your name enough gas certificates to insure, on the bases I have figured, a profit of at least $1,000,000, and more if necessary," Yerkes wrote Altgeld.  "They will make the profit likely to accrue to $2,000,000 if necessary."  All Altgeld had to do to earn enough money to guarantee wealth for the rest of his life was to approve Senate Bills 137 and 138.  One gave city councils the right to grant traction franchises for up to 99 years.  The other had the effect of eliminating further competition among Chicago's existing elevated railroads.

This was bleeping golden. 

So what did Altgeld do?

He vetoed the bills.  "I love Chicago," Altgeld wrote in his explanation for his action, "and am not willing to help forge a chain which would bind her people hand and foot for all time to the wheels of monopoly and leave them no chance of escape."  In an intense session that nearly ended in a riot, the Senate failed to override the governor's veto.

"God knows what's to come of my wife and my children," one poor senator from southern Illinois said.  "I am going home to them tomorrow and Monday I'm going to hunt me a job in the harvest-field; I reckon I'll die in the poorhouse.  Yes, I'm going home . . . but I'm going home an honest man." [Franch, John.  Robber Baron:  The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes]

All of this happened in the State of Illinois.  Honest to God.

It may not have been an entire upside down fishbowl of a government building like Big JimThompson got down there on Randolph Street a century later, but they did decide to get up a statue for Governor Altgeld.  A competition with a prize of $25,000 was put together, and in 1914 Gutzon Borglum was selected as the winner.

A member of the selection committee, Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post, said, "I looked upon it as if St. Gaudens himself were living and had consented to do the work.  I feel certain the statue at the north end of Lincoln Park will be no unworthy mate to St
Gaudens' Lincoln at the south end.

 Gutzon Borblum

"You may recognize the sculptor's name.  His most famous works are monumental.  The busts of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Stone Mountain, Georgia, which Borglum began in 1923.   And, of course, Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Dakota, executed between 1927 and 1941.

 Gutzon Borglum, Illinois Governor Dunne and Clarence Darrow at the statue's unveling
Chicago Daily News Negative Collection, ichicdn n065142, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Dedication of the statue occurred on Labor Day of 1915.  It was a cold, damp ceremony.  Notable dignitaries in attendance were Governor Edward F. Dunne, Gutzon Borglum, himself, and Clarence Darrow.  Darrow had saved Altgeld, the one-term governor, from complete financial ruin by taking him into his firm and it was in Joliet, representing Darrow's office, that Altgeld died in March of 1902 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

In the early days Altgeld's statue enjoyed good company. The Goethe statue by German professor Heinrich Hahn had been installed just two years earlier.  It would have pleased Altgeld to know that the huge bronzed believer in international brotherhood was just to the west.

Today if you weren't looking for the Altgeld statue, you would pass it right by.  It sits about 50 yards to the south of Diversey in the middle of the triangle formed by Lake Shore Drive and Stockton.  

Altgeld is looking a little weary these days.  Grass grows through the cracks in the granite pedestal, and the pedestal itself is heaving, slowly breaking itself apart as the freezes and thaws of winter do their damage and the roots of the surrounding trees help the process along.  

The honest governor seems to make a good drinking companion.  Many days there are empty beer cans scattered about.  It's a good place to get mellow in the moonlight, dark, quiet, well-hidden.

And there he stands, arms outstretched to protect the three disenfranchised citizens crouching next to and behind him, a posture of resolute strength and defiance.

His hands are extended, palms down.

There is no money in either one of them.



Kristen said...

very cool. I'm always up for a good history lesson, especially about my hometown/home state!

Barry Alfonso said...

I wanted to compliment you on your timely profile of the late great John P. Altgeld. I've been reading Harry Barnard's excellent Altgeld biography Eagle Forgotten and thought I might see what the blogosphere is saying about him. I think you did an excellent job of contrasting his courage and integrity with the tawdry political standards of today (which aren't so different from those of the Gilded Age). Altgeld was an amazing figure, very much ahead of his time. Thanks again.