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People & Events: Carter Harrison (1825-1893)

Carter H. Harrison, seated portrait photograph, cabinet card. 1890-1893. Carter Harrison was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1825. After attending Yale College and finishing law school, his disgust with the institution of slavery motivated him to move north, to Illinois. In Chicago, he made his money in real estate.

Harrison was first elected as mayor in 1879 and ran the city with a... personal touch, much like aldermen "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, or Edward F. ("Foxey Ed") Cullerton did. "Bathhouse" Coughlin, for example, was accused of having a profitable interest in the liquor store that supplied all the brothels in the red light district of his ward.

In Chicago, the electorate expected a certain amount of corruption. "Foxey Ed" once ran on the idea that it was "better [to] send back the man who has stolen enough already than to send in... a new man." On election day, some aldermen would give free drinks to anyone passing through (or passed out) in his district, in exchange for a vote. Still, when times were tough, the same aldermen were handing out free lunches to anyone who needed one, every day of the year.

In the late nineteenth century, many people believed the Republican party to be patronizing and moralistic, and the Democrats more concerned with protecting "individual liberties." Or, as one local pol put it: "A Republican is a man who wants you to go t'church every Sunday. A Democrat says if a man wants to have a glass of beer he can have it." Harrison was a Democrat who let people have more than beer. "This is a free town," he declared, and let the brothels and gambling parlors operate openly in the neighborhood called the Levee. By concentrating all the vice into one district, he checked its spread, and police patrols made sure that the businesses were fair and did not cheat their customers.

Michael 'Hinky Dink' Kenna at a bar Harrison supported and encouraged neighborhood ethnic saloons, local institutions that might function as meetinghouses, post offices and welfare offices in one. The saloon licenses also provided 12% of the city's revenue and paid for the electrical lines, streetcars, sewer pipes, fire and police stations that Harrison built. He was the first mayor to cater to the various ethnic groups in his city. On St. Patrick's Day he wore his finest green. Germans heard about his friendship with Bismarck. With Scandinavians he claimed a Viking heritage, and among blacks he recalled being raised by a "colored mammy." He welcomed everyone to Chicago and did not try to acculturate them into Anglo-American society, the way Charles Hutchinson or Jane Addams did.

Everyone who wanted a word with the mayor could come to his open morning office hours, and he would address their problems. He was a friend of organized labor, and gave health and factory inspector jobs to union leaders. Harrison was known to restrain police from breaking up strikes and supported the eight-hour workday. Because the mayor supported their cause, organizers of the national May Day general strike of 1886 focused on Chicago. Events escalated over the following days and violence broke out at Haymarket Square after the mayor left a rally there. After Haymarket, Harrison's leniency was cited disapprovingly as encouragement to the revolutionaries. He was voted out of office at the end of his fourth term.

Carter H. Harrison addresses crowd at the World's Columbian Exposition on American Cities' Day 10/28/93. Then, as the World's Columbian Exposition was in preparation, Harrison made his comeback. He wanted to be mayor of Chicago for the most important event in its history. In his inaugural speech of 1893, he said:

"When years ago I stood before you, aldermen of Chicago, and took the oath which fitted me for this high office, Chicago had less than half a million population; to-day it is the sixth city on the face of the globe, the second in America in population, and the first city on earth in pluck, energy, and determination. Standing thus, I feel deep anxiety lest I may not fulfill the expectation of the vast majority of my fellow citizens who have honored me."

The fair was so successful that Harrison tried to keep it open for another season so that millions more people could come visit Chicago. In addition, he hoped the continued employment and infusion of tourist dollars would cushion Chicago from the looming economic depression. Two nights before the end of the fair, Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast, a lunatic demanding a city job, entered Harrison's home and shot him dead.

Funeral procession for Carter H. Harrison I, men on horses, men playing drums A funeral procession of tens of thousands of Chicagoans followed Harrison's casket to Graceland Cemetery. Half a million stood in the street to watch as uniformed police officers and firemen, postal carriers and city clerks paraded by. Irish, German, Scandinavian, Polish and Italian communities all had representatives who marched. Union leaders mourned, as did the wealthy business elite who were Harrison's poker buddies.

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