If only the walls—or maybe the ground underneath the foundation—could talk . . .

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Thursday 30, May 2013 | Category:  

Father Kurt Hartrich, O.F.M., pastor of St. Peter's-in-the-Loop in downtown Chicago, operated by the Franciscans of the Sacred Heart Province, had the excellent idea of devoting part of his weekly church bulletin message for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to recall some memories of what had been previously on the Madison Street site prior to the erection of the beautiful Art Deco-style church in 1953.

The pastor tells a typically colorful Chicago tale full of crooked aldermen, mobsters, and other entertaining details:

Up until a few weeks ago, the only thing I knew about the property on which our church was built was that the LaSalle Theater had previously occupied this site and had closed several years before we bought the lot at 110 West Madison. But this property had a much longer and storied history than just a movie theater.

John J. Coughlin was the proprietor of a bathhouse in the basement of the Brevoort Hotel at 143 W. Madison (now 118 W. Madison) in the 1880s. Just a few years later in 1892, with powerful backing from Chicago gambling king Mike McDonald, “Bathhouse” John became Alderman for the richest single district in the world, Chicago’s First Ward, a position he held for 46 years until his death in 1938. During that time, he was not only the city’s most famous politician, but he presided over—and profited from—the greatest red light district in American history, the Chicago Levee.

Coughlin was born in 1860 in Connelly’s Patch, an Irish neighborhood on the West Side of downtown, between Madison and Adams Streets. With only a few mediocre years of schooling, he began working at the age of 11 as a rubber in a Turkish bathhouse, learning the trade and saving fastidiously. By 1887, he had earned enough to buy the bathhouse in the basement of the recently refurbished Brevoort House hotel on Madison Street. The Brevoort, one of Chicago’s oldest inns and always one of the best furnished (it was the first in Chicago to offer an elevator), was rebuilt after the Great Fire as an eight-story high premier European-style hotel and offered its visitors what was at the time considered a true luxury—the opportunity to take a bath.
 . . .

Together with Alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, he ruled the First Ward, selling protection to the brothels, gambling houses, drug dens, white slave operations, and saloons of the Levee for over 40 years. He was part owner of Frieberg’s Dance Hall and employed his business partner, Ike Bloom, as the official collector of tribute. Later, Bloom’s position was taken by “Big Jim” Colosimo, the founder of the Chicago Outfit, which Al Capone would run later. Nearly every famous Chicago criminal of the early 20th century got their start working under Coughlin and Kenna.

In his later years, while he continued to sit on the city council, Coughlin largely became a doddering figure-head for the Torrio-Capone syndicate, a kindly old gentle-man who enjoyed telling stories about days gone past. Bathhouse John passed in November, 1938. Having lost tens of thousands of dollars on his racehorse hobby during the last decades of his life, Mr. Coughlin left only a meager $25,000 to his family in his will.

Who would have ever thought that the land on which our church now stands would have such a storied history? I’d like to think that, since 1953 when St. Peter’s opened, we have made quite a difference in the reputation of this part of the Loop!

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