Review: City of Scoundrels

Chicago history seems to be full of larger than life characters and ironic juxtapositions. This may be because the city is some kind of fantasy exemplar of corruption, hubris, and contradiction, or because the folks who chronicle the place can spin their tales that way.  Gary Krist’s City of Scoundrels: 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth To Modern Chicago enhances the city’s larger-than-life reputation, for better and worse.

The 12 days in question are in late July 1919 in which a simultaneous race-driven set of riots, political maneuvering, child kidnapping, and blimp crash(!) combine to form a significant crisis.  The driving forces are, unsurprisingly, the riots and the maneuvering.  The crash and the detective case add flavor to and flesh out the news cycle of late 1910’s Chicago.

While the additional color adds context and scope to the main proceedings, the last part of the subtitle never really coheres.  Krist gives us a clear and insightful view of the times, but never quite connects it to the larger arc of Chicago’s history.  Some of this is because larger arcs are inherently large, and few turning points are absolute.  These riots had ramifications beyond their time, but Chicago has too many other forces colliding on it for them to feel definitive.

While the subtitle somewhat oversells the book, what is there is an insightful and engaging telling of a key time in Chicago history.  I found it gripping without having any particular interest in Chicago.


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