The Gambler King of Clark Street, the Origin of Chicago's Political Machine


Long before Chicago sold off its assets, made plastic cows parade and outlawed goose guts, there was Michael Cassius McDonald, Big Mike. Where the Chicago Machine now grinds the citizen with Progressive idiocies, Mike McDonald and other Machine Mavericks like the Lords of the Levee appeared to actually help people. Vice and Government have gone hand-in-hand since Solon tried to reason with Croesus – Hesiod tells us that political corruption sparks political thought. The life of Michael Cassius McDonald was active and thought-provoking. Big Mike sleeps with counselors and kings a few hundred yards from my raised ranch along the tracks on Rockwell Street in the Morgan Park neighborhood of Chicago.

Big Mike’s massive mausoleum dominates the entrance to Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery on 111th street, situated between the railroad tracks that once served the Chicago Stockyards and the ones that connected to the steel mills of Indiana. Chicago workingmen had their pockets looted by Big Mike during the 19th Century, particularly those who were given to vice gambling, booze and broads. More importantly Michael Cassius McDonald was the architect of the Chicago Democratic Machine.

Chicago journalist, lecturer, author and frequent guest contributor on the History Channel, Richard C. Lindberg has written a wonderful parallel to our current political situation. The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine – Southern Illinois University Press studies the life of this remarkable, energetic, romantic and larcenous Chicagoan.

The flabby accolades and acclimations directed at Jane Addams by the PC crowd are all too tiresomely trumpeted. Socialist Sapphist has her own expressway, but most of Addams’ storied good works are more flatulence than wholesome air. In reality, her arch-nemesis 19th Ward Alderman John Powers did more for starving Greek, Italian, and Jewish families (while taking more than few spondulix for himself) than crop-haired Addams, whom Powers appointed to public office only to have Addams scream for his indictment. It is amazing, that, once one takes the time to read contemporary accounts from the archives, that iconic Harpies like Jane Addams emerge in the flesh. Likewise, traditional villains seem to have the scales of their sins drop like cotton-wood puffs. While doing some research on 1904 Stockyard Strike, I learned that Addams and her crowd seemed to sell out the strikers. Historians can deal with that, I guess. In the mean time Richard Lindberg casts a cold eye on history.

Richard Lindberg studies Big Mike McDonald in the cold light of historical reality. This from the Amazon Product description:

“Twenty-five years before Al Capone’s birth, Michael McDonald was building the foundations of the modern Chicago Democratic machine. By marshaling control of and suborning a complex web of precinct workers, ward and county bosses, justices of the peace, police captains, contractors, suppliers, and spoils-men, the undisputed master of the gambling syndicates could elect mayoral candidates, finagle key appointments for political operatives willing to carry out his mandates, and coerce law enforcement and the judiciary. The resulting machine was dedicated to the supremacy of the city’s gambling, vice, and liquor rackets during the waning years of the Gilded Age.

McDonald was warmly welcomed into the White House by two sitting presidents who recognized him for what he was: the reigning “boss” of Chicago. In a colorful and often riotous life, McDonald seemed to control everything around him—everything that is, except events in his personal life. His first wife, the fiery Mary Noonan McDonald, ran off with a Catholic priest. The second, Dora Feldman, twenty-five years his junior, murdered her teenaged lover in a sensational 1907 scandal that broke Mike’s heart and drove him to an early grave.”

I had the pleasure of chatting with Mr. Lindberg about his book that traces Illinois political corruption to the Chicago King of Vice in the 19th Century. Richard Lindberg traces the lineage of the modern machine and “boss rule” back to the 1870s – Big Mike was the uncrowned “boss” of the Democratic Party, controlling patronage, the gambling action, the Cook County Board, the neighborhood saloon bosses he anointed to aldermen and a bewildering array of contractors and spoilsmen not unlike the same kind of folks who cut the inside deals today. Rich moves the story forward to the 1890s and early 1900s when Mike relinquished his rule to younger up-and-comers. As the 19th Century rolled over and we move forward into the Cermak-Kelly-Daley years, the names become more familiar to us. After Mike settled in for a bitter and unhappy retirement having to contend with an unfaithful wife who ultimately drove him into the grave, the “impresarios of Democratic graft, clout and patronage” take over – James “Hot Stove” Quinn and Robert Emmet “Bobby” Burke (indicted); Roger C. Sullivan (who tried to ramrod through the Council the Ogden Gas Monopoly in the 1890s); George “Boss” Brennan, who mentored “Pushcart” Tony Cermak; the Pat Nash-Jake Arvey-Ed Kelly triumvirate through Depression and War; continuing on through the Daley Dynasty, the final destruction of Chicago’s Republican Party and the modern day notions of political correctness foisted on us that disguise a mountain of political malfeasance in good ole’ Crook County.

There’s never been a book-length biography of McDonald written before – and Rich, the author of 14 books about his ‘ole home town, is contemplating making this Volume One of a three-volume history of Machine graft. The story is an eye-opener, but as Rich reminded me, the lakefront liberals who castigated John McCain and the GOP so savagely last Fall, turn a blind eye and say nothing about the 130 years of non-stop corruption in the City of Chicago – most of it perpetrated by the Lords of the Machine, of which Mike McDonald was its founding father. The shady history of the “Copperhead” Democrats of the Civil War, the 27 aldermen indicted since 1970 – none of that counts in this one-party, one-rule town championed by the Chicago Sun-Times (the Obama Times) when you get down to it, and that is the sad and sordid legacy of our past.

This article is courtesy of the Chicago Daily Observer.

Pat Hickey is an author, blogger, and regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer.

You can buy Rich Lindberg’s book The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago's Democratic Machine here.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Richard Lindberg

Richard Lindberg is a wonderful historian and critic of political life in Chicago.

Thanks for linking my article to this informative site. I am very flattered.

Pat Hickey