Saturday, July 4, 2009

Chicago's Original Big Feller

Read any book about Chicago’s criminal past and chances are that you’ll come across the name of Michael Cassius ‘Big Mike’ McDonald. He was the founding father of a sophisticated, profitable, and far-reaching crime confederacy that included politicians, police officers, and even the mayor’s office. But so much time and chicanery has passed since his heyday that McDonald has receded into Chicago mythology. What Richard Lindberg has done in The Gambler King of Clark Street is employ dedicated research methods to crack through the lore and remind us that Big Mike was Chicago’s original ‘Big Feller’.

McDonald’s methods were alternately insidious and blatant. He bonded many a poor immigrant out of jail, aware that such favors translated into ethnic community votes. This in turn made him invaluable to the local bosses. His multi-storey gambling palace on Clark Street looted workingmen of their scant wages and sucked in the funds that enabled him to buy the police and the judiciary. No one could ever accuse McDonald’s game plan of lacking a grass-roots element.

Big Mike controlled everything except his wives. The first, Mary Noonan, ran off twice, first with an actor and the second time with a Catholic priest. His second spouse, a buxom blonde Jewess named Dora Feldman, was several years younger and ended up finding a teenaged lover whom she eventually killed for infidelity. The latter debacle is said to have hastened McDonald’s death in 1907.

The Internet Age has granted access to public records, newspaper archives, photo collections, etc, to anyone with a computer. History writers no longer have to be local or on a well-paid sabbatical to conduct research. The bar has been raised, but in this instance, Lindberg sails over it effortlessly. I was fascinated by the humanizing detail that he uncovered about Mike McDonald’s early years, and pleased to note his use of family stories and popular anecdotes, which demonstrate how the person is remembered by those who knew him or were affected by him.

Author Pat Hickey notes in his ingenious review of The Gambler King of Clark Street: “The story is an eye-opener…. 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.” I heartily agree, and stand by what I wrote for the book’s jacket: “Chicago history aficionados owe Richard C. Lindberg a debt of gratitude for providing a deeper understanding of how the city became what it is today.”