Fiddler on the Hoof – Frank McNally on the making of a Chicago betting tycoon, ‘Big Jim’ O’Leary
A police boat on the Chicago river dyed green for St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: iStock/Steve Geer
The annual greening of the Chicago river, which I had the strange privilege of witnessing up close recently, is said to be an environmentally friendly affair. At any rate, the “Friends of the Chicago River”, a conservation group of 40 years standing, are relaxed about the substance used to dye it.
But the same waterway has a more cautionary tale, via a stagnant spur of the river, just southwest of the central district. This carries the ominous name of “Bubbly Creek”. And it first earned that title more than a century ago, when it was the receptacle of enormous amounts of blood and offal from the neighbouring Union Stock Yards, a district itself made infamous in Upton Sinclair’s novelistic expose of the US meat industry, The Jungle (1904).
Here’s Sinclair on how the bubbling started: “The grease and chemicals that are poured into [the creek] undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide.
“Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out. Once, however, an ingenious stranger came and started to gather this filth in scows, to make lard […]; then the packers [won] an injunction to stop him, and afterwards gathered it themselves.”
The stockyards are long gone these days. So now the creek is a lot less polluted than it used to be. There have been attempts to oxygenate it, and some actual fish have reappeared. But as recently as 2015, a local newspaper reported that the water “still generates bubbles”.
Chicago’s vast livestock slaughtering industry, which employed 40,000 once, had other indirect effects. Because of the scale of finance involved, and the need for companies to hedge themselves, it spawned another kind of stock-trading: in commodities and futures. Moreover, whatever about real leviathans disporting, the stockyards also created some metaphorical big fish, including a first-generation Irish-American called James “Big Jim” O’Leary.
Despite a major misfortune that befell his family when he was a toddler, O’Leary became a very rich man, thanks to gambling. He suffered an early setback in that too when his business in Long Beach, Indiana went bankrupt (an experience replicated in the 1990s by Donald Trump, who briefly operated a floating casino on the Indian side of Lake Michigan before it too went bust).
But O’Leary then went to work in the stockyards, where he earned enough to open a saloon nearby, from which he could provide unlimited betting opportunities for the captive (cattle) market. The saloon eventually included Turkish baths, a restaurant, billiard room, and a very large, secluded section for the main business.
Soon he was also running an illegal casino from a steamship on the lake, until it was closed down by repeated police raids every time it docked. O’Leary refused to pay off the law, even though that was orthodox practice then. Instead he reinforced his saloon – which had suffered several bomb attacks from rivals – to make it “fire-proof, bomb-proof, and police-proof”.
In the end, despite his apparent reluctance to take out shares in the police, he seems to have gained control of them anyway. He was successfully changed only once in a long career and, as a first offender, escaped with a fine.
He made millions, meanwhile, based on a philosophy that divided humanity into three categories: “gamblers, burglars, and beggars”. Most people gambled with something, he reckoned, even if it wasn’t always money. As for his burgling category, that included not the officially recognised thieves, but also many who people worked “in offices”. Of the rest, he said: “A fellow that won’t gamble or steal is a beggar”.
This harsh worldview may or may not have been influenced by the vagaries of his childhood. I mentioned that his family was forced to relocate when he was an infant. That’s because his birthplace burned down in 1871 and took much of the city with it. Cattle were implicated in that too. The future “Big Jim’s” mother was Catherine O’Leary, whose cow was blamed – unfairly – for starting the great fire.