Where else but Chicago could a nickname like “Decent Dever” be the kiss of political death for a mayor?
Elected 100 years ago, William Dever was defeated for reelection four years later by William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, a former mayor and awesome boodler. Graft is an art form in Chicago, and Dever was an uncompromising apostle of reform.
To some, he seemed preachy. But when he died, two years after leaving office, mourners filled his home at 5901 N. Kenmore Ave. Most were workaday Chicagoans. Thomas Keane, the city collector and a longtime ally of Dever’s, understood what brought the crowd to his friend’s wake on Sept. 4, 1929.
“In his speeches he talked to people as if he sat at dinner with them, or in his home over a friendly cigar,” Keane told a Tribune reporter. “And a lot of those people whose friendship he won, but never knew about, are coming to pay their last respects.”
Keane and Dever had been friends since working together in a leather tanning shop, four decades earlier. As he first got into politics, Dever’s resume and political leanings lent themselves perfectly to the moment.
Reform was in the air in the initial decades of the 20th century, which is why it’s called the Progressive Era. But the reformers were middle class — old-line American and Protestant — with little firsthand knowledge of the working-class immigrant and Catholics.
Dever was a hybrid: He was a reformer with impeccable working-class credentials. Before him, about the only politicians who took an interest in blue-collar Chicagoans were the ward bosses. Hardly altruistic, they’d send a food basket to a hard-pressed family, expecting in return its vote for the boss’s candidates.
As his biographer John R. Schmidt put it in “The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago,” Dever was “An Irishman who acted like a WASP.”
Dever’s father was an Irish immigrant who ran a tanning shop in Woburn, Massachusetts, and William learned the trade there. Dever and his wife, Kate, moved to Chicago in 1887 after she saw a newspaper story about the city’s need for tanners. He got a job at a tannery on Goose Island, and Kate shortly came upon another fateful newspaper story — about a night law school.
For two years William Dever worked days at the tannery, took evening courses at the Chicago College of Law, came home, and studied until 2 or 3 a.m.
After passing the bar exam, he opened a Loop office. When the tannery workers went out on strike in 1891, they asked their former colleague to represent them.
After honing his cross-examination skills in mock trials at the tannery — with a union member playing the part of the arresting officer — Dever won acquittal for a worker charged with repeated picketing. That won Dever a reputation as a friend of the workingman.
Tuesday evenings he often attended the Free Floor discussions at the Chicago Commons settlement house. Neighbors kicked around issues of the day. Perhaps they appealed to Dever as a big-city analogue of the New England town meetings of his youth.
Either way, Dever caught the eye of Graham Taylor, the settlement house’s director. A professor of Christian sociology at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Taylor fulfilled that title by following the example of Jane Addams and living communally in an immigrant neighborhood.
He wanted to rid the neighborhood of its rapacious alderman, and Dever looked right for the assignment. “We observed him, while he thought no one was looking, we estimated him by the way he carried himself, by his work, by the company he kept,” Taylor recalled.
But Dever’s virtues couldn’t overcome the other side’s tactics when he ran for alderman in 1900: “Ballots were stolen, marked up for the incumbent, then stuffed into the boxes,” Schmidt wrote in his book on Dever.
Although he lost his initial try for the office, Dever won two years later with printed appeals in every language spoken in the 17th Ward.
He was known as an honest alderman, an endangered species among the City Council’s so-called Gray Wolves, who fed at the public trough. The council, he said, had “an ability to do the right thing in the wrong way and the wrong thing in the right way.”
He was elected a judge in 1910 and remained on the bench until 1923, when he was tempted by the irresistible pull of becoming mayor.
Voters were weary of Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson’s sticky fingers and slapstick stunts. He rode a horse into the City Council chambers, flouted Prohibition rules by running his own speak-easy in Belmont Harbor and an associate had shaken down a vendor of school supplies. Indeed, when the Democrats nominated Dever, Big Bill dropped out of the race.
His replacement on the Republican ticket faced a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma. Arthur C. Lueder belonged to the GOP’s anti-Thompson faction. So Lueder had to endorse a housecleaning at City Hall. But that looked like back-stabbing to Thompson’s partisans.
Dever’s image was unambiguous.
“William E. Dever is the man of the hour for Chicago’s next mayor. For twenty-two years Chicago has been training and testing him in her exacting public service and now finds him ready to meet and master her most serious crisis after eight years of her worst misrule,” Taylor wrote in a telegram to a meeting of prominent independents.
The Republicans tried enlisting bigotry with a whispering campaign that Dever’s sons went to Catholic school, which he easily refuted, adding: “I myself attended public school and never have seen the inside of any other kind.”
Dever beat Lueder decisively.
Seeking reelection four years later, he found himself on the defensive.
Booze had been nixed by Prohibition. Immigrants resented being told they couldn’t have a glass of beer after work. Dever, defending himself against accusations he was a closet prohibitionist, noted that he had “been raised with the people, and knew some of their ideas of life.”
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But he was also committed to the rule of law. On Sept. 29, 1923, he closed 35 saloons and a brewery.
Newspapers elsewhere saluted the mayor for cleaning up Chicago. In the city, however, voters saw bootleggers fighting gunbattles over the remaining speak-easies. That gave a hollow ring to the mayor’s slogan, “Dever and Decency.”
After sitting out the 1923 election, Thompson got back into the mayoral race four years later and promised to reopen saloons if elected. “We low brows got to stick together,” he said in a speech to a West Side audience. Thompson went on to win the election, big time.
Dever’s good-government experiment failed. But he’d enabled ordinary Chicagoans, if only briefly, to feel neither exploited by ward heelers nor patronized by reformers. At his City Hall inauguration as mayor, laborers wore overalls and housewives juggled small children. Latecomers sat on windowsills and the floor.
The Tribune’s reporter captured the magic of Dever stepping forward to take the oath of office:
“There appears in the middle of the human scenery on the rostrum a man with ruddy cheeks from much smiling, and keen gentle eyes, strong jaws and the kind of gray hair that makes you think of steel. The roof blows off, the windows rattle, the floor shakes, people pound each other on the back and dance up and down, and they carry on like the very devil.”
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