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The Most Notorious Party Ever — Chicago’s First Ward Ball

November 19, 2019

– By Tom Schaffner

It’s December in Chicago and it’s time to celebrate.  Not Christmas, it’s time for the annual First Ward Ball — the most raucous, hedonistic, booze-soaked party for gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, pickpockets, police captains and politicians that the world has ever seen.

Hinky Dink and Bathhouse

We take you back to December 1897 when Chicago had not one but two elected aldermen to serve each ward.  Representing the city’s First Ward were two gentlemen with perhaps the greatest nicknames of all time, John “Bathhouse” Coughlin, a burly, boisterous man who worked in — and owned — several bathhouses throughout the city and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, a quiet, teetotaling saloon owner who received his moniker from Joseph Medill, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, simply for being 5 feet 4 inches tall. 

Politicians such as Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin helped establish Chicago’s reputation for unchecked corruption. Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

As emperors of the First Ward, Coughlin and Kenna presided over the Levee, Chicago’s infamous red light district just south of the Loop along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Throughout the year, Coughlin and Kenna used their positions of authority to extract monetary and political support from the hustlers, pimps, gamblers, prostitutes and saloon keepers who comprised the Levee.  They then used this money and political support to consolidate their positions as undisputed “Lords of the Levee.” Political corruption of the first order.

One of the ways Coughlin and Kenna were able to “raise funds” on an annual basis was by hosting an event called the First Ward Ball, a wild evening of debauchery and bacchanalia that, according to some revelers, was an orgy of vice.  The first event, held in 1896 at the 7th Regiment Armory on South Wentworth Avenue, attracted a wild mix of society thrill seekers, police captains, politicians, prostitutes and gamblers.  It was wildly successful.  According to one newspaper report:

“Brewers, wine merchants and distillers offered supplies of liquor at discount prices. Waiters, anticipating huge tips, eagerly paid $5 each for the right to serve at the event. Policemen and politicians came and mingled with pickpockets and common criminals. Prostitutes, in scanty but expensive costume gowns, arrived with police escorts. At the stroke of midnight Coughlin — attired in a green dress suit, mauve vest, pale pink gloves, yellow pumps and silken top hat and flanked by Minna and Ada Everleigh, the brothel queens —led the ball`s grand march.”

Big and Bad

Every year the First Ward Ball grew larger and wilder.  By 1908, the First Ward Ball featured 20,000 paying guests and had moved into the spacious Chicago Coliseum, a venue that normally hosted national political conventions and championship boxing matches.  During the course of the evening, revelers downed 10,000 quarts of champagne and 30,000 quarts of beer. Riotous drunks stripped off the costumes of unattended young women. A madam named French Annie stabbed her boyfriend with a hatpin.

Editorial cartoon from The Chicago Tribune, 1908 by John T. McCutcheon

Kenna beamed with joy.  “It’s a lollapalooza! There are more people here than ever before.  All the business houses are here, all the big people. Chicago ain’t no sissy town.”

Indeed it wasn’t.  However, by 1909, the reformers had had enough.  “A real description of last year’s ball is simply unprintable,” said Arthur Burrage Farwell, the president of the Chicago Law and Order League. “We must stop this disgrace.”

Sustained public pressure prompted Chicago Mayor Fred Busse to put an end to the soiree and on December 10, 1909 the city revoked the liquor license and the First Ward Ball was no more.

This December when you’re out and about with family and friends, hoisting a cocktail and enjoying a little holiday merriment, remember to toast Bathhouse Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna — two corrupt machine politicians who put the “Party” in Democratic Party.

Holder of two journalism degrees, including a masters from Northwestern University, Tom Schaffner is a native of the Chicago area and has spent nearly 50 years as a writer, editor, publisher and professional communications consultant. He was also the founder, editor, and publisher of the Chicago File, a newsletter for former Chicagoans. Tom is also the co-owner of L Stop Tours.

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