William Hale Thompson

For other people named William Thompson, see William Thompson (disambiguation).
William H. Thompson
41st & 43rd Mayor of Chicago
In office
November 3, 1915[1]  November 3, 1923
Preceded by Carter Harrison, Jr.
Succeeded by William E. Dever
In office
November 3, 1927  November 3, 1931
Preceded by William E. Dever
Succeeded by Anton Cermak
Personal details
Born (1869-05-14)May 14, 1869
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died March 19, 1944(1944-03-19) (aged 74)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Political party Republican
Religion Protestantism

William Hale Thompson (May 14, 1869 – March 19, 1944) was an American politician, mayor of Chicago from 1915 to 1923 and again from 1927 to 1931. Known as "Big Bill",[2] Thompson was the last Republican to serve as Mayor of Chicago (as of 2016). He ranks among the most unethical mayors in American history.[3] TIME magazine said in 1931, "to Mayor Thompson must go chief credit for creating 20th Century Politics Chicago Style."[4]


Thompson in a campaign photo, ca. 1915.

Thompson was born in Boston, Massachusetts to William Hale and Mary Ann Thompson, but his family moved to Chicago when he was only nine days old. Instead of enrolling in college, he traveled across Europe and then took up ranching in Texas and New Mexico, returning to Chicago in 1892 after his father's death. Shortly after returning to Chicago, Thompson joined the Chicago Athletic Club and quickly was appointed captain of the water polo and football teams. His six-foot frame and athletic prowess earned him the nickname "Big Bill" which would stick with him throughout his career as a politician.[5]

Thompson began his political career in 1900, when he ran for and narrowly won a position as alderman of the 2nd Ward.[6]

In 1915 he was elected as the 41st Mayor of Chicago, and was the last Republican elected to that office since. Early in his mayoral career, Thompson began to amass a war chest to support an eventual run for the Presidency, by charging city drivers and inspectors $3 per month. He was mayor during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 and was said to have had control of the 75,000 African-American voters in his day.

He declined to run for reelection in 1923 and he was succeeded by William Emmett Dever. While out of office, Thompson organized a "scientific" expedition to search for tree-climbing fish in the South Seas (actually just a crude attempt to keep his name in the public eye—the expedition never got farther than New Orleans).

He ran again in 1927 during citywide gang war. Always a flamboyant campaigner, Thompson held a debate between himself and two live rats which he used to portray his opponents. Pledging to clean up Chicago and remove the crooks, Thompson instead turned his attention to the reformers, whom he considered the real criminals. According to Thompson, the biggest enemy the United States had was King George V of the United Kingdom. Thompson promised his supporters that if they ever met, Thompson would punch the king in the nose.[2] Al Capone's support allowed Thompson to return to the mayor's office, using such tactics as the "Pineapple Primary" which occurred April 10, 1928, so-called because of the hand grenades thrown at polling places to disrupt voting. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre also took place while Thompson was mayor.

Thompson blamed Ruth Hanna McCormick's lack of support for his loss at the 1928 Republican National Convention, and he returned the favor during her 1930 campaign for the United States Senate.[7] Thompson had had a longstanding rivalry with the McCormicks. He intensely disliked Robert Rutherford McCormick who published the Chicago Tribune. U.S. Senator Joseph Medill McCormick was the publisher's brother,[7] and after his death, his widow ran against Thompson for the vacant seat.

Caricature in the Chicago Tribune, 1920

Amid growing discontent with Thompson's leadership, particularly in the area of cleaning up Chicago's reputation as the capital of organized crime, he was defeated in 1931 by Democrat Anton Cermak. Cermak was an immigrant from Bohemia, and Thompson used this fact to belittle him with ethnic slurs such as:

I won't take a back seat to that Bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack or whatever his name is.
Tony, Tony, where's your pushcart at?
Can you picture a World's Fair mayor with a name like that?

Cermak replied by saying, "He doesn't like my name...It's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could," which was a sentiment to which ethnic Chicagoans could relate, so Thompson's slurs largely backfired.[8]

After Thompson's defeat, the Chicago Tribune wrote that

For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy.... He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization. In his attempt to continue this he excelled himself as a liar and defamer of character.[9]

Upon Thompson's death, two safe deposit boxes in his name were discovered to contain nearly $1.5 million in cash.[10]

See also


  1. 1 2 Reynolds, Paul (2009-11-29). "US-UK 'Special Relationship' Not So Special Any More". BBC. Retrieved 2014-03-20.
  2. Grossman, Mark (2008). Political Corruption in America: An Encyclopedia of Scandals, Power, and Greed. Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing. p. 329. ISBN 978-1-59237-297-3.
  3. TIME (1931) online
  4. Bukowski, Douglas. Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the Politics of Image. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. p. 12. ISBN 025202365X.
  5. Bilek, Arthur J. (2008). The First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosimo and the Ladies of the Levee. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House. p. 179. ISBN 978-1-58182-639-5.
  6. 1 2 "Thompson v. McCormicks". Time. Time, Inc. 1930-11-03. Retrieved 2008-05-02.
  7. Wendt, Lloyd (1979). Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper. Chicago: Rand McNally. ISBN 0-528-81826-0.
  8. Wendt, Lloyd (1979). Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper. Chicago: Rand McNally. p. 545. ISBN 0-528-81826-0.
  9. "People: Strikers". Time. 1944-04-10. Retrieved March 2, 2010.

Further reading

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