Atlas Obscura’s First Ward Ball Celebrates Chicago’s Bawdy Levee District History

Hinky Dink and friend.

By June Sawyers

New Orleans may have had its Storyville but Chicago had the Levee, the infamous red-light district on the Near South Side that was known for drinking, gambling and prostitution.  And the kings of the Levee kingdom were the two aldermen of then First Ward, Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and John “Bathhouse” Coughlin. Yes, during the turn of the last century, each ward had two aldermen.

Kenna and Coughlin were the Laurel and Hardy of Chicago politics. Kenna, tight-lipped and quiet—and a devout teetotaler to boot––preferred to stay in the background. Coughlin, on the other hand, was boisterous and flamboyant, the epitome of the political glad-hander. Together they controlled the coffers of the First Ward, which was, paradoxically, the wealthiest and poorest ward in the city: it encompassed downtown and the red-light district. And every year they hosted the First Ward Ball. Typically, the highlight of the ball occurred at the stroke of midnight when a resplendent Coughlin—donning a green suit, mauve vest, pink gloves and silken top hat––led the grand march.

On Friday night at the Bassline (2239 S. Michigan Ave.) about 150 hardy souls braved the winter cold by attending the First Ward Ball, presented by Atlas Obscura Chicago, the local branch of Atlas Obscura, the online magazine and digital media company that specializes in unusual and obscure travel destinations.

Organizers Patti Swanson and Leyla Royale both love history and creating events inspired by history, “so it only made sense to do a sort of modern interpretation of the infamous First Ward Ball,” they explained. “We wanted to try to explore several different aspects of the original party for this version, including having music, dance, burlesque, and drag, all things that would have been found in the original ball.” And because they are self-proclaimed “history nerds” they included some educational elements to go along with the entertainment.

This was the second year for the First Ward Ball; Swanson and Royale say they hope to make it an annual event.

A big part of the fun was people watching. Most everyone who attended was dressed in their finest turn-of-the-20th-century garb, from flowing gowns to top hats. But even better was the juxtaposition of eras and attitudes. A young woman walked by dressed in 19th century attire wearing very modern sunglasses. And it isn’t every day that you see someone dressed like Bathhouse John and a drag queen sharing the same space.

Three vintage photos of Hinky Dink greeted customers as they bellied up to the bar. On the stage and dance floor, performers included drag artists (Sigourney Beaver), drag queens (Aurora Gozmic), and burlesque dancers (Charlie Scarlet; Brooklyn Britches and the Whispers). The evening was capped with an appearance by the Street Jaxkson Band, which evoked the sound of the former Chess Records studio, a short distance north at 21st and Michigan. One of the guitarists wore sunglasses, Blues Brothers style.

Poker dealer at the First Ward Ball.

Up on the third floor anyone who wanted to know about the First Ward—and Chicago—history could listen to a trio of lectures. The historians name-dropped famous and not-so-famous gangsters such as “Big Jim” Colosimo and Johnny Torrio. Author, tour guide and ghost investigator Adam Selzer offered a funny and wide-ranging session on the Levee District’s brothels, including the most famous of all, the Everleigh Club. Liz Garibay, creator of History on Tap (which combines history and beer), presented an overview of the Levee, its growth and demise. Finally, Paul Dailing, dressed in a natty red suit, talked about that perennial Chicago topic: political corruption. Garibay compared Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John to former alderman Ed Vrdolyak and the currently embattled alderman Ed Burke while Dailing added, “Everything Burke’s doing Bathhouse invented.”

Meanwhile, the modern-day versions of Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John roamed the premises, the former wearing a giant Mad Hatter-style top hat, the latter sporting a nifty vest and craft beer beard. For a fleeting moment I sat next to the young Hinky Dink. We were sitting on a banquette directly across from the photo of the real Hinky Dink.  “You took your hat off,” I said. “It got warm,” he replied. And then before you knew it, he was off again, dancing to the sounds of the blues band and moving to a James Brown-like funky riff.

The real Coughlin prided himself as being Chicago’s “poet alderman” so it seemed right that the evening ended with the recital of his poem “Midnight of Love.” And for better or worse, the organizers posted another one of his poems in the gender-neutral restroom stalls.

Photos by June Sawyers. 

Guest author June Sawyers is the author of Chicago Portraits(Northwestern University Press) and wrote the “Way We Were” history column in the Chicago Tribune.


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