Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003

Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003

Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003

Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003


Chicago's reputation for corruption is the basis of local and national folklore and humor. Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833–2003 unfolds the city's notorious history of corruption and the countervailing reform struggles that largely failed to clean it up. More than a regional history of crime in politics, this wide-ranging account of governmental malfeasances traces ongoing public corruption and reform to its nineteenth-century democratic roots. Former Chicago journalist James L. Merriner reveals the battles between corrupt politicos and ardent reformers to be expressions of conflicting class, ethnic, and religious values.

From Chicago's earliest years in the 1830s, the city welcomed dollar-chasing businessmen and politicians, swiftly followed by reformers who strived to clean up the attendant corruption. Reformers in Chicago were called "goo goos," a derisive epithet short for "good-government types." Grafters and Goo Goos contends a certain synergy defined the relationship between corruption and reform. Politicians and reformers often behaved similarly, their separate ambitions merging into a conjoined politics of interdependency wherein the line between heroes and villains grew increasingly faint. The real story, asserts Merriner, has less to do with right against wrong than it does with the ways the cultural backgrounds of politicians and reformers steered their own agendas, animating and defining each other by their opposition.

Drawing on original and archival research, Merriner identifies constants in the struggle between corruption and reform amid a welter of changing social circumstances and customs- decades of alternating war and peace, hardships and prosperity. Three areas of reform and resistance are identified: structural reform of the political system to promote honesty and efficiency, social reform to provide justice to the lower classes, and moral reform to combat vice. "In the matter of corruption and reform, the constants might be stronger than the variables," writes Merriner in the Preface. "The players, rules, and scorekeepers change, but not the essential game."

Complemented by eighteen illustrations, Grafters and Goo Goos is rife with shocking and amusing anecdotes and peppered with the personalities of famous muckrakers, bootleggers, mayors, and mobsters. While other studies have profiled infamous Chicago corruption cases and figures such as Al Capone and Richard J. Daley, this is the first to provide an overview appropriate for historians and general readers alike. In examining Chicago's notorious saga of corruption and reform against a backdrop of social history, Merriner calls attention to our constant problems of both civic and national corruption and contributes to larger discussions about the American experiment of democratic self-government.


More than twenty years ago when I started reporting for a Chicago newspaper, I thought the city's reputation for lurid political wickedness was overblown, that it was an indelible but mythical hangover from the time of Al Capone. Surely, after decades of reform and the emergence of a well- educated, professional political class, public corruption—while it still made headlines—was the exception and not the rule.

With more experience, I marveled at the regular procession to jail of Chicago aldermen, judges, and state legislators, joined by Illinois governors and congressmen. My perspective was journalistic, and I wondered at how often media exposés of their wrongdoings demand little exertion in what is called investigative reporting. Not to disparage the Chicago media's tradition of aggressive investigations, but the task at times was like strolling through a field of rocks and choosing at random which ones to turn over. In fact, some turned over by themselves as prosecutors leaked damaging information about public officials to the news media.

At this point, protocol requires one to stipulate that most public officials are honest and dedicated and that the media sensationalize the relatively few felons. I readily so stipulate. But that does not dispose of the issue. How is it that so many Chicago-area politicians are crooks, even after more than a century of good-government reform campaigns, with reformers among the city's most lauded citizens? Is this experience peculiar to Chicago, or does the city's history have something to say to the nation as a whole?

While doing research for a biography of former U.S. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Daniel D. Rostenkowski of Chicago, I was surprised to find no general history of Chicago corruption and reform. There are many biographies of Al Capone, Richard J. Daley, and other figures, along with studies of various reform and crime-fighting movements—but no overview of the entire dynamic. This omission is perplex-

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